Mastering the Art of Storytelling to Bridge the Gap with Empathy, Understanding, and Connection
By: Lisa Isom, Director of Communications, New York Annual Conference
We all have a story to tell; our own unique set of experiences and personal understandings that dictate how we move through and process the world around us. Yet for most people, these stories are unlikely to be shared with anyone outside of a small, trusted and typically like-minded circle of individuals.
It’s an understandable and unfortunate circumstance, especially now. In the midst of these challenging times, we’re all managing a set of unprecedented experiences that should conceivably bring believers closer to God—and closer together as the Body of Christ.
Prepare to Find, Nurture and Share Your Story
Whether it’s an experience about living alone yet thriving during the Pandemic; the loved one who as an essential worker ventured out daily; a personally triumphant moment in the midst of despair; a narrative about dealing with the loss of a loved one; or the unexpected ways in which these times have shapes one’s faith.
We’ve all been through something that could help others in their own personal journeys.
Or perhaps it’s a sharing of the feelings you had the moment you summoned the courage to watch the video of George Floyd taking his last breath; your telling of a personal, racially-fueled encounter that changed your life in unimaginable ways; a connection made during a time when so few are able to listen and connect; or a narrative about the pain felt for your children who will have to live and grow in a world that views them as “other.”
We all have experiences worth sharing to uplift, inspire and encourage others.
And when these experiences are distilled down to their most persuasive, engaging and teachable moments, they become our stories. They become stories that work to bridge the possibility of opposition by inviting others to take a walk in your shoes and exhibit empathy. Most importantly, they become stories that move the needle to change attitudes and perspectives.
An audience will always sit still, listen to, and learn from a well-told story. So, the questions are… How do you find your story and summon the courage needed to share it in the most meaningful and engaging way? How can you ensure your story has an impact, without landing a blow that shuts the ears, ends the growing process and eliminates any possibility of empathy on the part of the listener? How can you ensure your story is worth sharing?
Thankfully, anyone can learn to be a good verbal teller of stories. With this understanding, this Fall the New York Annual Conference (NYAC) will partner with the Commission on Archives and History to offer a unique opportunity to clergy and laity from throughout the Conference.
Why Storytelling is so Important to the Life of the Church
The Bible, of course, is a Divinely Ordained collection of stories. There are tales of crises and kingdoms, miracles and martyrs, sin and salvation and (Hallelujah!) there’s the Good News. After the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:28-29 (CEB) says that “when Jesus finished these words, the crowds were amazed at his teaching because he was teaching them like someone with authority and not like their legal experts.”
Jesus addressed issues of the day in the language of the day. He reached out to people where they were. We all know that the early Methodists did the same. Love Feasts were common and these services included members telling their own stories of faith and conversion. Those in attendance would learn about their faith by hearing their fellow members tell stories about their faith journeys.
In African culture, Griots shared wisdom from the past and kept sacred cultural truths alive through storytelling. Family histories and traditions are propelled from one generation to the next through storytelling.
And in the modern Christian church these shared experiences became testimonials where believers shared, as that old Negro spiritual would say, “how I got over.”
Even in the business world, companies like Nike and Microsoft have used storytellers to share organizational stories and core values so that corporate history wouldn’t be lost as employees came and went.
All this to say that, as we look at our world today and grapple with issues of faith, history, and justice, storytelling can be the bridge that links us from where we’ve been to where we are and where we someday hope to be. And in these “interesting” times, we must start the bridge building process immediately.
There was scarcely a dry eye in the house last November after professional storyteller Sheila Arnold concluded her one-woman historical portrayal at United Methodist Church Weston-Westport. Through Betsy Costner, congregants glimpsed the life of an enslaved woman in 1860s America. They laughed at her audaciousness and spunk, marveled at her resilience and courage.
Poignantly, congregants felt the acute pain of familial separation—first when Betsy was snatched from her parents, her siblings, and her first true love—and later when her son was torn from her and sent to live on another plantation, never to be heard from again.
At the conclusion of the service, the congregation had witnessed more than a historical rendering; they had felt firsthand the pain wrought when people, institutions and government conspire to deprive their fellow human beings of their right to live freely, without fear and persecution.
For many in church that day, the question became this: what are we doing in the face of modern-day atrocities? If we truly believe God is our Father, how are we helping our brothers and sisters? That’s the power of a well-told story.
It’s a power Arnold understands. “I have a gift and I am required to use it,” she says of her storytelling abilities. “God has given me a ministry of faith and justice. I am to tell stories that help people with [their] faith and help people see justice. Along the way people may laugh and be inspired but I know, without a shadow of a doubt, my stories revolve around faith and justice for all God’s children.”
“I want my stories to move people, but not just have them to go—'Oh that was just beautiful’” Arnold says. “I want to move them to go ‘Hmm. I want to DO something. I need to spend some more time loving somebody. I need to apologize. I need to stand for something, I need to go on that march. I need to find a way to feed some homeless people.’ Whatever that thing is, DO something."
Are You Ready to do Something? Start by Building Your Storytelling Skills
The NYAC/Archives and History Storytelling Workshop will take place on Saturday, November 7, 2020 virtually, on Zoom. To ensure an optimal learning during this FREE, full- day event, registration will be strictly limited to 30 participants who will have the opportunity to take part in a broad range of activities, including a plenary session, and two interactive workshops that will give you the chance to study at the feet of two proven and renowned storytelling masters, the aforementioned Sheila Arnold and Rev. Donald Davis, a retired UMC preacher and one of the most popular figures on the U.S. storytelling circuit.
There will also be breakouts offered for deeper, individualized learning, a live performance by Arnold and Davis to set the stage and more. To manage capacity, we encourage all who are interested in participating to register today.
During the workshops, Arnold’s session will teach how to pack a punch, or say what needs to be said in times such as this, without getting folks mad at you. Davis’ session will teach how to find your own stories and give them life. (See below for information on storytellers Arnold and Davis).
We understand that the idea of finding your story and your voice can sound intimidating. But on the contrary, storytelling is an essential part of our humanity. According to research from neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak, who studies how people respond to a well-told narrative, “stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds, but in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry,” all because we are innately social creatures.
“You can expect to be entertained, changed, and (we hope) motivated to do more in the current push for connection and social justice after this event. It was designed to remind us of our humanity and what we share,” explains Anna Bates, chairman of the Archives and History Commission, “We expect that all participants will be changed and be ready to make ’good trouble.’”
“This should be a powerful experience,” says workshop planner and certified lay speaker Jerry Eyster. “Indeed, when you think about it, stories and storytelling are two of the most powerful tools we have in our Christian arsenal. It is through stories that bridges are built, connections made, and, ultimately, souls saved.”
Have questions? Please email them to email@example.com or call 914-615-2241. Please remember to register early to participate in this unique opportunity.