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Tell the Story

The Gifts of Storytelling

Building relationships by sharing our stories
by Faith+Lead | July 20, 2021

By Pastor Meggan Manlove

In May 2020 I asked a parishioner to write for the new daily devotion blog created by our cluster of congregations. She passed that first time I asked her to write, but the second time I asked, she said she was ready. With each two- or three-week schedule, writers were offered the chance to pause until the next schedule was created. When I asked her in late August if she wanted to be on the next schedule, she texted back, “Yes, I can. It actually helps me.” By this time in our congregation’s journey with writing, witnessing, and storytelling, the healing power of it all did not surprise me, but healing was never my original goal.

Storytelling Culture

We began creating a storytelling culture at Trinity Lutheran in Nampa, Idaho several years ago. I was called to serve a community of faith already committed to the neighborhood. They had leased land for affordable housing and dug up the front yard for a community garden. Since I accepted the call in late 2010, we have taken the affordable housing on ourselves and partnered ecumenically to create Learning Peace: A Camp for Kids. In another context, I might be writing about vocation and discernment. Here, action was already happening, but we all needed to be better equipped to talk about our faith. Also part of our particular puzzle, we live in the Great Basin, where many other Christians and Mormons seem far more comfortable talking about their faith than we do. 

For many years we have created our own Advent daily devotional, authored by Trinity’s members. Each year members have gone deeper with their storytelling. In 2019 I headed out on my sabbatical and travels included a trip to Limerick, Ireland, home to Narrative 4, a nonprofit which uses the story-exchange to foster empathy and peace. Two of the congregational renewal events during the sabbatical were storytelling events: a workshop with two pastors from the Midwest who had been trained through The Hearth out of Ashland, Oregon and a “Writing as a Spiritual Practice Workshop” led by a Boise writer and memoir instructor. These two events convinced me that people at Trinity Lutheran would give up a day for a faith formation event. In February 2020, I led twelve church members through a day-long storytelling workshop. (Read about the workshop in tomorrow’s blogpost).

The final storytelling venture I want to mention was a collaborative effort of the Treasure Valley Cluster of ten ELCA congregations near Boise. We met on Zoom March 16, 2020. We discussed how we might partner together during the pandemic and decided on three components: daily connection/devotion, online small groups, and Holy Week worship. A member of one congregation graciously volunteered her time to create tvprays.org. A retired pastor volunteered to coordinate the schedule of writers (pastors, deacons, youth minister) who would contribute to our daily devotion offering. In May we decided to invite lay members, including the Trinity member quoted above, from our congregations to contribute. 

Meanwhile, my dissertation work on storytelling had led me to survey several other disciplines. What could they teach me about narrative and how could they help me to lead a group of people in faith storytelling?

Language

Underlying David White and Michael Epston’s groundbreaking work, their 1990 book Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, is the power of language (ix.). A second source for understanding language was Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. In his chapter on neuroscience, van der Kolk writes that one of the things the brain-disease model overlooks is that “language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning” (38).

To illustrate the power of language and the social science tool of text analogy, White cites the work of Edward Bruner with Native Americans. In the 1930s and 1940s, the dominant story about Native Americans “constructed the past as glorious and the future as assimilation” (10). The real consequences of this included the appropriation of territories. Then, in the 1950s a new story emerged that constructed the past as exploitation and the future as resurgence. “This new interpretation also had its real effects, including the development of a movement that confronted the dominant culture with the issue of land rights” (11). Clearly narrative has the power to be a tool for great change. Both Bruner and White admit that the text analogy and narrative also have limits because “a narrative can never encompass the full richness of our lived experience” (11).

However, the stories themselves and the telling of the stories are important. The text analogy “advances the idea that the stories or narratives that persons live through determine their interaction and organization, and that the evolution of lives and relationships occurs through the performance of such stories or narratives” (12).

Relationships

I know through experience that storytelling builds relationships. I have told stories in sermons, heard stories during pastoral care visits, and read the stories in Scripture in worship and at bedsides. Several authors I read used their own words to explain the connection between storytelling and relationships. Furthermore, their storytelling practices help foster relationships.          

In her book Storytelling for Social Justice: Connecting Narrative and the Arts in Antiracist Teaching, educator Lee Ann Bell puts words to what I have always valued about stories. She writes that “stories are one of the most powerful and personal ways that we learn about the world, passed down from generation to generation through the family and cultural groups to which we belong. As human beings we are primed to engage each other and the world through language and stories can be deeply evocative sources of knowledge and awareness” (11).          

“Kitchen talk” is one of the helpful terms Bell uses. She distinguishes this “honest, straight up conversation that people have in the kitchen” from “sugar-coated living room conversation that is too polite to get to the heart of the matter” (21). In the setting of my congregation, the equivalent of that living room conversation is what I believe often happens during fellowship time. I of course do not believe that we all need to share our deepest fears and emotions during the time after worship, but sometimes I fear our conversations stay too shallow. We have, after all, just spent an hour together confessing our sins, receiving forgiveness, connecting mind and body through singing and praying together, and hearing again that we worship a God who loves us with abandon. It seems reasonable that after worship we would be moved to engage more in Bell’s kitchen talk rather than in living room talk. 

In Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community, Joe Lambert suggests that “we can take our deeply felt attraction to media, which has done so much to silence our own voices, and find our way back to the campfire. Through digital storytelling, we all can become storytellers again” (5). Lambert writes that story has many jobs. He focuses on its role “as the vehicle to encourage our social agency and finally, as a process by which we best make sense of our lives and our identity” (14). He adds, “What story cannot do is completely simplify the messiness of living. Story is essentially an exercise in controlled ambiguity. And given the co-constructed nature of meaning between us as storytellers, and those who are willing to listen to our words, this is story’s greatest gift” (14). 

Healing and Writing Stories

David White explains that perceiving change in one’s life is crucial to experience one’s life progressing, and since “writing is ideally suited to provide for such recording, then it would appear that the written tradition is one important mechanism for the introduction of the linear conception of time, and thus for generation of meaning in our lives” (35).

Van der Kolk also affirms the writing process. He notes that when we talk with someone with whom we do not feel completely safe, “Our social editor jumps in full alert and our guard is up. Writing is different. If you ask your editor to leave you alone for a while, things will come out that you had no idea were there … You can connect those self-observing and narrative parts of your brain without worrying about the reception you’ll get” (240).

At least when dealing with traumatic memories, we might want to start by writing instead of talking. It is important to understand that the process of talking about distressing feelings can be hindered by trauma itself. Van der Kolk explains that brain scans of people with traumatic memories have revealed “how their dread persisted and could be triggered by multiple aspects of daily experience” (47). Writing to oneself might be a way to make meaning without being triggered. 

Your Turn

How will you use storytelling in the next chapter of ministry? Healing, relationship building, evangelism? Remember that they are all connected.

Start by writing out a story from your own experience. There are some prompts in this blog post

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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