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July 19, 2012

Melissa Wiginton: Lead with stories

A great skill of effective Christian leaders is the ability to tell powerful stories.

I was reminded of this recently when our public radio station, KUT, sponsored a local “StoryTime” event. Anyone could come for free to the Cactus Café and tell a story, read a poem or blog post -- anything you could share in five minutes.

When I entered, the room was dark. A man on stage recalled a serendipitous night of baseball in 1976. There was the odd, good-natured gesture of a stranger, the giving of two free tickets for a grandpa and a grandson, the electric energy of the Astrodome, the beer and the crowd, the foul ball caught. I don’t know the American League from the National League, but I got the story: He and grandpa shared a magical night that forged their bond.

Granted, some of the stories lacked the force of an Astros game with a beloved grandfather. One man read a journal entry from his afternoon at a state park. One woman, literally wiggling with delight and announcing she “lov-v-v-e-d” being back on stage, celebrated her return to the spotlight by telling a story about going to the dentist.

What struck me amidst the mix of the mediocre and the exceptional was the crowd. The Cactus Café was standing room only. Admittedly, it’s a small venue with table seating for a mere 60. But this was a Tuesday night, parking was a pain, and no one knew who would be speaking. People were willing to take a risk to tell and to hear good stories.

We Christians are people with a story, and ours is the business of weaving stories: ours, God’s and those of our ancestors in the faith. We are a people who move from word to world and back again. It is both our practice and our gift to give language to the times and places where we and others discover both hurt and blessing.

There are a number of ways we can beef up our storytelling.

Take a look at Biblical Storytelling. This practice grows out of the understanding that, long before they were written down, the narratives of the Bible existed in oral form as stories shared in the faith community and passed down from generation to generation. Biblical storytellers learn scripture by heart and share the stories in worship, in hospital rooms, devotionals and retreats. I hope to find a Biblical storyteller in Austin to teach me how to do it. You can too. I might just take it to the Cactus Café.

Look also at The Hearth, southern Oregon’s true-life storytelling series. Every quarter Mark Yaconelli gathers a handful of locals to tell a true story in first person and based on a theme. Past themes include: “Changed: True Tales of Transformation,” “Letting Go: Stories of Loss,” and “Into the Wild: Wilderness Tales.” Each event includes live music and all proceeds go to charities based in southern Oregon. Mark’s church hosts the events and the tickets often sell out. Members of the congregation regularly attend and they have begun to notice something: People who come to The Hearth find their way upstairs and into relationship with the Christians of that community -- weaving new stories of their lives and God’s story.

So rather than the latest leadership technique, the new strategy, the new ministry model, why not return to something that’s already deep in our Christian bones, deep in the fiber of what it means to be people of a story?

We can do this. It’s already who we are.

Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Education Beyond the Walls at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.


powerful thoughts

As a believer in stories, I'm so glad Melissa wrote this piece, sharing her experience. Absolutely! Forget all the gimmicks to make our churches stronger again. Let's return to the basics - story telling.


Wow, Melissa, this is so much where my own thinking has been lately, especially as I consider the power the church has to tell an alternative story to the dominant cultural stories. I'm really excited to read about The Hearth - that's very cool, and something I'd be interested in having our church do!


A recent research project that Auburn Media helped conduct looked at what it takes to change the hearts and minds of Christians who are conflicted around GLBT issues. What the research showed was that it was story-telling that ultimately helped change attitudes and beliefs.

humans and storytelling

Hi Melissa, nice post. The use of narrative in preaching and worship continues to find its advocates and critics, yet the stories keep on coming. In a significant recent publication, Jonathan Gottschall makes the case using brain research that we are hardwired for stories (The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human). Gottschall does not address the religious dimension of narrative, but his thought is intriguing for those in the religious community who explore the place and limits of story as a medium of developing and expressing faith. Loved your story about the Cactus Cafe and the lead to The Hearth. Lee

Story Telling

Not having formal theological background, I have to rely on the stories of the Bible to come to life for me through the anointing of interpretation by Jesus Christ. As a lay speaker in the United Methodist Church, I constantly fill pulpits of small to medium size churches, in both rural and smaller towns. It has been interesting to me, that God has brought the gift of storytelling within reach of my communication with members of congregations. I love it, honored that God smiles on me along with providing titles to pique the curiosity of the listener. Following Lectionary, I recently preached on “Nicodemus Resume” making it a more spectacular story bringing to life his proven skills and Jesus response. Yes, it is good to tell the story!


A man in our congregation, a retired newspaper man, helps people tell their stories in written form. Sometimes he gets them to tell their story from beginning to this point; and, then, write it down for the grandchildren.

What a gift Al has.

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