From personal experience

Yesterday I had the opportunity to lead the whole service in my placement church. Not a big problem – it’s something I’ve done many times. That said, being somewhere new has the added pressures of not knowing what they know, not knowing how recently they may have covered the chosen passage (an advantage of following the lectionary), whether you are about to utterly contradict previous teaching or whether you’re getting too close to personal/pastoral issues. On the plus side, such pressures do help focus the mind and maybe force you to take that bit extra care of how something is worded.

Anyway, it all seemed to go well enough and, despite having two video clips to show (one mine, one for the Christmas Gift Sunday appeal) there didn’t seem to be any technical gremlins. I was preaching from a favourite passage but with a completely different slant on it than previous times I’ve used it (which is why it’s a favourite, there’s always something new in it). That also helped to be more relaxed. Afterwards, at the door, there was the usual encouragement and the usual “lovely service” comments – which are frustrating, but just the way it is. However, there is a small group in the congregation who have been asked to give me more ‘honest’ and constructive feedback and it wasn’t long before I was nabbed for a ‘wee chat’.

Actually it was all good (mostly), with the interesting observation that I appeared much more relaxed and confident while I was doing the all-age talk and preaching than at other times in the service. Probably fair comment – that’s when I feel most ‘at home’ and doing what I feel called to do.

There was one comment though that got me thinking and it’s something I am aware of and struggle with to a degree – anecdotes.

I thoroughly despise ‘canned’ anecdotes. Chances are everyone has already heard them or read them on the internet months before. And, to be fair, I haven’t worked with a supervisor yet who ‘approves’ of them. But I also struggle with personal anecdotes. It’s not an issue of sharing them or exposing my soul or anything like that, it’s just that they’re my anecdotes and I don’t always see how they would be of interest to others. I’m not particularly shy or lacking in life-experience either. I also fully appreciate the value of a personal anecdote – but generally I’m thinking of someone else’s. Such personal stories help illustrate a Biblical passage; they make it more relevant; they make ‘ownership’ of the story easier.

I’m not a natural storyteller (at least I don’t think I am). I’m a ‘teacher’. I can explain and expound; I can (I hope) enthuse and illuminate; but I struggle to tell a story. I can contemporise, giving examples of where one might find a similar situation or come across a similar dilemma or moral issue. But I generally assume (or hope) that in such a process, those who are listening can begin to relate it to their own experience and not rely on mine (or my lack of it).

Students are often told of how important it is to find their own voice. How do I find my hidden story-teller?

6 responses to “From personal experience”

  1. Sometimes the greater point can be hidden in the story. The humorous point that sticks in the brain because they got the joke. A teacher has to be able to tell stories. I can think of one who did rather a lot of that kind of thing …
    As for finding your hidden story teller… Did you ever tell your kids stories at bed time ? Sometimes the way to tell the story is to retell the passage in a different way, that contemporise thingy. Or tell the story from one character’s point of view, and then maybe switch to another character to get something else out of the story.
    I’m sure you know all this already !!

  2. I find myself retelling the passage quite often in a sermon.  Trying to set a scene, give it context.
    One of the thinks I learned from telling my kids bedtime stories is that they love to hear the same one, over and over and over.  Obviously that can become dull and familiar but they notice when something changes…
    And I’m not altogether down on using other people’s stories.  People like stories.  Stories contain truth and often expose it in a way that exposition can’t.  I think bad anecdotes are worth avoiding but there’s nothing wrong with an illustration, a story within a story or even using someone else’s experience.  If there was we’d never read books or watch films or listen to music or look at art.

  3. I have also been retelling the story in the passage – setting it in its cultural/historical setting. I have found retelling it with another slant does help – like David suggests retelling it from another charaters view point – for example – how did it feel to be blind Bartimaeus? Doing that encourages you to story write.
    Then you can bring it up to date with a modern setting – here the anecdote/illustration comes in. Leaving you with the lesson learned to push forward.
    I too love preaching/teaching and as time goes on the whole getting balance right does come.

  4. This is really interesting because it is exactly the same problem I have in what I am training in and feel called to do… conducting orchestras and choirs. I was at a course a year or so ago and the tutor and his wife are also into psychology and looking at how things from your life affect what your strengths and weaknesses are when leading a musical group. One of the main things which they identified for me, and is something others have commented on, is that to convey how I want the music to come across I need to speak more in non-musical terms.  I feel very comfortable explaining to musicians what needs to be done technically, and making gestures which correspond to that, but coming up with a story is not as easy for me, even though I know it works. Speaking about how a passage represents the death of a great hero and the grief of those around him as his life slips away will create a greater musical effect than me saying that the passage has to fade away and sound sad. The ironic thing about this is that my Dad is very involved in storytelling, maybe that’s what puts me off. Anyway, that probably comes across as a very random response but I just wanted to share that with you because it sounds like you have the same issue as me but in a very different area. One thing I’ve been considering doing to help is doing storytelling workshops, perhaps that’s something you would find useful too – I think the Netherbow might be the place to look for that

  5. Hi folks,

    Thanks for all the encouragement and pointers. Perhaps I’m simply even more aware of it at the moment as my supervisor’s style is very much about ‘story-telling’ and so it’s even more of a contrast than I have previously noticed.

    Iain – that’s a great suggestion about the Netherbow workshops. I think I’ll follow that up and see what they have. Thank you.

  6. Just a little follow-up on this.

    I contacted the Storytelling Centre who were most helpful, added me to their mailing list for the new courses starting in the Spring and also provided me with costs if I wanted to book a group into a session (was thinking about candidates). I also forwarded the email to 121 who have also now been in touch with them with a view to including some sort of session at a candidates’ conference..

    So, thanks again Iain for the nudge in that direction.

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