Revealing the Sacred

Date posted: Wednesday 06 January 2016

“The beauty of storytelling is that everyone can do it…and everyone is changed by it,” The Rev. Justin Grimm writes, following “The Power and Practice of Personal Storytelling with Mark Yaconelli” event on Saturday, December 5. A joint event of the Saint Paul Area Synod and Augsburg College’s Youth & Public Church Initiative, participants from all over the Twin Cities and many different faith communities gathered for this day long workshop with Mark Yaconelli, founder and executive director of The Hearth: Real Stories by Regular Folks, a non-profit that assists cities and service-based agencies in producing personal storytelling events designed to help communities and individuals deepen relationships and cultivate compassion.


The day long workshop sought to pose the question of, “How can we use, and what is the value of, storytelling in our ministry settings?” 


“Stories create communion, but they also create identity and meaning,” Yaconelli explained between small group sessions. The church is where we seek relationship, compassion, understanding, and meaning - all things that storytelling, as Yaconelli sees it, encourages and fosters.


During small group sessions, he posed prompts – a childhood hiding place, a crush from when you were younger, someone who displayed remarkable compassion – and then each participant had just a couple of minutes to tell a story to their small group about the prompt at hand.


“As we got together with the strangers sitting around us whom we had just met, we discovered powerful stories inside each of us, and gifts for painting images and contexts that pulled each other in,” The Rev. Jenny Mason of Light of the World in Farmington, writes following the event.


The Rev. Kelli Weiss of Our Savior’s in Hastings agrees. “Even a few short stories helped me understand people on much deeper levels than years of small talk would have ever done,” Weiss writes. “I find that initiating conversations that go deeper can be awkward and difficult, but just having a question to answer with a few people was really meaningful and not too vulnerable that any of us shied away from participating.”



Soulful Listening

Storytelling pulls people in not only because they are telling their story, but also because they are listening to others. Yaconelli stressed that telling a story was only a piece of the sacred experience. Listening is also holy. “There’s a yearning for the primary act of listening to the stories of another soul,” Yaconelli believes.


“It is a gift to be asked a good question and then listened to,” Mason tells me, “and we found ourselves leaning in to listen to the stories of others, enjoying both the challenge of telling our stories, as well as the challenge of listening to others.”


The power isn’t just in intentional storytelling, but also in intentional listening.


“In ministry, I’m always trying to ask the good questions that unlock these stories,” Yaconelli told the group, “and then be present in listening.”



The Power

The Rev. Lamont Koerner reflects that,“Everybody loves a good story. ... We seek them out everywhere. Why do we find storytelling so compelling? What is it we seek? Meaning.”


The event was called “The Power and Practice of Personal Storytelling” because the interplay is dynamic. Our stories provide meaning, and, as Yaconelli demonstrated, it does take practice, and it does take intention, to bring storytelling into our ministry settings.


“Too often in the church, we’re nervous about our stories,” Yaconelli told the group. “So, we turn our stories into a fact, into knowledge. But the soul speaks in stories. When you allow people to tell their stories, you’re hearing the core struggles of their soul, of their vitality. The sacred is revealed when we trust the reality that we’ve lived.”


And that is exactly what Grimm hopes that our congregations and ministries can see. “How great would it be if the folks who make up our communities were able to share their sacred space with another in safe and reassuring places,” Grimm tells me.


Weiss left the day-long workshop in agreeance. “It seems like such a simple and obvious thing to be doing in our congregations,” she reflected. “It seems like this is the way that church could – and should – be.”



The Practice

So how do we cultivate the act of personal storytelling as an intentional part of our ministry? As with most things, that isn’t a question with one easy answer.


Upon leaving the workshop, Mason reflected that at Light of the World they are working to regularly include personal storytelling as a part of their worship, as well as “re-storying” their collective narrative as a faith community over Epiphany. Another person left the workshop feeling a renewed commitment in using storytelling for adult education during Lent. Humble Walk in Saint Paul hosts storytelling events at Shamrock’s Pub. Those events gather many, from the church and from the community, willing to both share and listen. These events have proven to be a meaningful and intentional part of Humble Walk’s ministry in the West 7th neighborhood.


Yaconelli created a list of ideas for how to use personal storytelling in your ministry. Some of those include: share stories that fit the business or task of a particular meeting; have a writer in the congregation collect sacred experiences to read as part of worship liturgy or sermon; invite members to share stories in worship that match Biblical passages; have one person each month share their story as a sermon; have a storytelling class or retreat; have regular special events where people tell stories, such as intergenerational events, Father’s day, Mother’s day, Valentine’s Day; have children and youth record stories of elders or life in the church; after service trips or outreach events, have a person share a story in worship that is more than facts and statistics; have a storytelling exhibit with photos and brief stories; have people write out their stories anonymously to hang in the church; create a storytelling series like “The Moth” as an outreach event.


In addition to ideas for storytelling in your ministry, Yaconelli also provided tips and guidelines for telling a good story once a prompt has been given.


Yaconelli breaks the structure of a story down. He starts first with a title: “Our experiences are complex. Stories tend to be simple. What is the title of the story you want to tell? Giving it a title will help you get to the heart of your story.”


The next part of the story is setting the scene: “Give a few introductory details, only what is necessary: place, time, age, other involved and your relationship to them.”


Yaconelli’s next guideline is introducing the character (“We need to have a feeling for the ‘who’ of the story”) followed by an action (“No lectures, no explaining, no group therapy. Try to focus on one interaction, one moment that changed you. Get into the action as soon as possible.”)


Other guidelines that Yaconelli suggested include seeing it and visualizing it, rather than telling it; making a clear start and a clear finish by crafting and memorizing an opening line and ensuring that the last line helps the listener know what your story means to you.


“Remember that there is no right way to tell your story,” Yaconelli reassures. “When we tell stories, it’s like a conjured up memory of the world. Don’t talk about it – tell it. Live through it.”


To learn more about Mark Yaconelli, The Hearth, and how you can grow your ministry through the power and practice of personal storytelling, visit