In the first article in this two-part series, I shared research on the gifts of storytelling, mentioning the workshop held in my congregation. What follows is a detailed description of that workshop.
Scripture and Identity
On Saturday, February 15, 2020, I gathered with twelve members of my congregation at 9:00 a.m. for a continental breakfast and several icebreaker exercises. After the icebreakers, we went to the sanctuary for an opening prayer ritual. I read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–40) and shared some thoughts about the power and possibilities of opening up Scripture together. I pointed to the fact that in this story from Acts, two people with different backgrounds engaged Scripture side by side and the Holy Spirit was clearly present. What exactly would happen in our time together, I could not be sure, but I expected the Spirit to be present.
Then I led the assembly in our tradition’s Affirmation of Baptism service. It was crucial to me to begin the day affirming our common baptismal identity. I was certainly going to facilitate the workshop and bring some of my own reflections, but each one of us belongs to the priesthood of all believers and is an interpreter of Scripture and of our own lives.
We returned to our meeting room, and I gave the group some background on what had led to our time together by summarizing my design proposal. Then we set about creating our communal covenant for the day.
I took time here to explain that we would not be solving problems that day but that if someone was triggered, we had a guest present to help. My colleague, an ELCA pastor and pastoral counselor, spent the entire day with us. She never stepped out with anyone, but it was very reassuring for me as the facilitator to know she was there if needed.
I had prepared the room with intentionality. Three rectangular tables formed a U shape. Four women in their 30s and 40s were in the middle, at the bottom of the U. To their right were four men in their 50s through 70s, and to their left were four women ages 50 and older. I sat at the open end of the U with a flip chart and a small table for books and notes.
We then began the biblical story-linking process, which I adapted from Wimberly’s book Soul Stories: African American Christian Education. Phase 1, Engage the Everyday Story, helped us pay attention to different aspects of storytelling without all of the extra layers involved in engaging biblical stories (39-47). I chose passages from two Mountain West memoirs: Kim Barnes’s In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country (28-31) about growing up in northern Idaho and Joe Wilkins’s The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up in the Big Dry (15-18) about growing up in eastern Montana.
I read the selected passages aloud and encouraged them to jot down notes about the communities Barnes and Wilkins were part of (family, work, the natural environment). They were also encouraged to listen for or imagine potential barriers to the authors’ becoming their full selves. They shared their notes and reflections with partners, two sets of partners at each of three tables, the same partners they kept for the entire day. After discussing the memoir passages, the pairs shared what the passages had evoked in them about their own self-perceptions. Put another way, I asked the participants to say in what ways the stories of Barnes and Wilkins were their stories too.
We transitioned from engaging the everyday story to engaging the Christian faith story in the Bible. The intent of phase 2 of Wimberly’s method is to link the everyday stories we have heard and our own reflections on the stories with Scripture (47-52). I introduced our biblical story for the workshop by explaining why I chose the book of Jonah, saying that it has many entry points and I had high confidence that we could engage it easily. I read aloud the version from the Spark Story Bible.
Then we focused on the Bible as a mirror, allowing the Jonah story to be a mirror of our lives. Prompts here for participants were:
- Who are our family, church, and our community?
- What in the Jonah story can assist us in our struggles?
- What wisdom does the story provide for our lives?
- What questions does the Jonah story raise about our identity?
Then each table group was given a chapter of the book of Jonah to act out. When we got to chapter 3, Jonah’s song from the belly of the fish, I read the entire chapter out loud. Next, we entered into a time of silent reflection in which we envisioned God affirming us, giving us a gift—identity, hope, comfort, a nudge.
We were then scheduled to engage Wimberly’s activity 5, “Anticipate Ongoing Response to God.” I had planned to put the participants back in their pairs for the discussion, but something unplanned happened through the acting out of the story. Our inhibitions were low, and our vulnerability was high. So, I adjusted our schedule and we talked as a large group. We talked about everything in the Jonah story that is still so easy to relate to today: Jonah’s reluctance, the group dynamics on the boat, Jonah’s transformation, Jonah’s prejudice against the Ninevites, repentance, Jonah and the bush. The conversation was dynamic and holy and made space for thoughtful reflection.
We reconvened after lunch and entered into Wimberly’s phase 3: Engage Christian Faith Stories from the American Christian Tradition (52-55). I handed out copies of Fred Rogers’s obituary and allowed participants several minutes to read it silently. We watched a video of the first five minutes of Rogers’s 2018 Commencement Address at Marquette University. In the address, Rogers talks about how we can all contribute something good to someone. I then asked the participants to turn to their partner and respond to questions like:
- How is Fred’s wisdom useful in southwest Idaho today?
- How does his life and message give us hope?
- How does his life and message free us?
For a few people, this time of talking about Fred Rogers was the best part of the day. The pairs had fruitful discussions, and we transitioned easily into the final learning segment.
Wimberly’s phase 4 is “Engage in Christian Ethical Decision Making” (55-57). I asked participants to silently remember as much as they could about the Jonah story and Fred Rogers’s messages. They paired up again and shared pieces from the Jonah story or Rogers’s message that motivated them. I asked them to consider what had the potential to motivate them and Trinity Lutheran to address the negative within us and in our world.
Then I had people gather in groups of four. In these small groups, we decided on specific responses to God’s call to address something—negative self-identities we experience in ourselves or others, the marginalization of people, or any form of brokenness.
Trinity Lutheran, as a congregation, is already doing a variety of this kind of work, and so one of the unplanned but not unwelcome questions that was brought up when we came back together as a large group was, How do we talk about our congregation to other people? The suggestion I gave that was most well received was to start with personal experiences. When has the congregation been there for you, or what do you appreciate about the congregation?
You Are the Letters
We ended our day in the sanctuary with a brief closing prayer and time of sending. We used Responsive Prayer from Evangelical Lutheran Worship. The Scripture passage I read was 2 Corinthians 3:1–3, in which Paul tells the Corinthians that they are his letter of recommendation.
I have always been a proponent of letter writing and still have, in various shoeboxes, the letters my parents and I wrote to one another during my many months at summer camp and my first few years in college, before email replaced letters. With all of this as background, I love the metaphor of people being the letters.
I serve a congregation that puts more emphasis on our actions rather than our words, so to me this Scripture passage also seems to serve as a bridge to something more. Yes, our actions of growing food, providing housing, practicing hospitality, and loving our neighbors will always be paramount. But we also understand the power of language and are slowly growing our skills in telling our faith stories. Eventually, both our words and our actions will be the letters of recommendation for the congregation, the larger Christian church, and the triune God we worship.
Storytelling in Your Context
There are so many models for faith storytelling and every context has different opportunities and challenges. Most of us learned digital skills either before or during the early stages of the pandemic, which open more possibilities. Be clear, as always, about your goal and do not be afraid to invite specific people to the workshop or series.
About the Author
Pastor Meggan Manlove grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She is a graduate of Concordia College, Moorhead and the Univ. of Chicago Divinity School. She served a parish in rural Western Iowa for six years and moved to Nampa, Idaho in 2010 to serve as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church. Meggan is a collaborator and cares deeply about food insecurity, affordable housing, and outdoor ministries. She blogs at A Place at the Table.
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