The Power of Storytelling in Ministry: An In-Depth Interview with Jee Hae Song

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How can storytelling impact your ministry? And how can you inspire others to share their stories? Jessica Anschutz of the Lewis Center staff interviews Jee Hae Song who says we all have gifts for storytelling. She shares part of her story to inspire others to share how God works in their lives.

Listen to this interviewwatch the interview video on YouTube, or continue reading.


Jessica Anschutz: How has your personal story impacted your ministry?

Jee Hae Song: I’ve served as a pastor in the United Methodist Church for six years. I’ve been invited a lot to talk about my story in various situations, in my board interview, in preparing sermons, in small group situations and classes. And that led me to think about how my life experience affects who I am and what kind of God I serve. I began to think not only about how my story affects me but also how I can relate to people through my stories. I found when I talk about my personal stories in connection to the message I’m conveying, people actually like the message better.

When I first began my ministry, when I’d prepare sermons, for example, I’d look for good sermon illustrations on the internet or from books. But when I tell people my own stories, they are able to relate to it and appreciate it. They come alive. And after Sunday service they say, “I liked what you said because I can connect to it.” I see the power of the storytelling in the ministry. It’s a very effective tool for me.

Jessica Anschutz: Can you give our listeners a few examples of how you have used your storytelling to inspire the congregation to ministry?

Jee Hae Song: Absolutely. I am a mom of a three-year-old. He will be four next month, and his name is Joshua. Joshua’s story is the story I use the most these days, because he gives me a lot to tell other people. One good example is a recent newsletter story. After Easter, my sermon focus was about how the first Christians, having encountered the resurrected Lord, were called to share the Good News by witnessing what they experienced. And I wanted to teach that this is the basis of what we call evangelism — sharing how we experience God instead of just forcing people to believe. So, I told people about how I said that to my son, Joshua, how we have conversations before he goes to sleep. We lie down together, and I ask him “how’d your day go?” This three-year-old boy has no idea what to say because he’s three years old. So, instead of bombarding him with questions, I tell him about my day. And then, when he listens to my story, he opens up and begins to talk about his day, and I am able to see the glimpse of his life without me.

That’s exactly how good storytelling works — I tell people what I’ve experienced so that they can open up. I believe we all have experienced God, God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s grace in our lives, and that’s great. So, why don’t you tell them? That eventually will help people open up to the Good News of Jesus. So that’s how I connect my story to my message.

Jessica Anschutz: How has hearing the stories of others impacted your ministry?

Jee Hae Song: That’s really a good question and that’s where I want to improve. Like many other pastors, I consider myself an introvert, so pastoral ministry is not always easy for me. As introverts can agree, sometimes being with people drains your energy, and sometimes I feel that I just want to shut people off instead of hearing them. But then I begin to realize that’s why God put me in the ministry, to be more engaging, to come out of my own shell and go to other people’s lives and be with them. Because, quite honestly, I considered myself a very individualistic person before I got into the ministry. I didn’t think I was selfish, but I was more interested in my thing, myself, my world instead of others’ world.

When I began ministry, I had to dive into this, even though it’s out of my comfort zone. So, I decided that if I were a good listener, I would eventually hear people’s stories through visits, through one-on-one conversations, through conversations after church, and all that. People begin to share their stories. They say I’m a good listener and I take that as a compliment. It opens the opportunity to be more loving, more compassionate, more caring for the people that I serve.

Jessica Anschutz: What can church leaders, clergy and laity, do to encourage people to share their stories?

Jee Hae Song: I think the best way for church leaders to encourage people to share their stories is through example. In fact, I think that’s the most important virtue for any leader — to be an example and a model for the people they lead. And that’s why I tell stories to the people I serve — to show them examples and invite them to do likewise. And the good thing about storytelling is that anybody can do it. You don’t need a degree. You don’t need training. You can do it. Maybe some people are a little more reluctant because they’re not used to it, but we all do it, one way or another. Modeling is a good way to encourage people to share their stores. The leader’s job is to show people that it can be anybody’s job. It’s easy and I’ll show you how.

Jessica Anschutz: The pandemic has brought new ways of communicating such as Zoom. Have these new methods of communicating, interacting, and gathering given birth to new ways for sharing stories?

Jee Hae Song: I think the pandemic brought more challenges than benefits, to be honest. But the upside is that online communication tools remove some of the restrictions of time and space. There are people who are immunocompromised and are still afraid to come to church. But they can worship online. For some people, 10:30 in the morning doesn’t work because they have a job. But they can always come back in the evening to worship. When we meet virtually for various church purposes, we overcome those restrictions of time and space.

A good example is a morning prayer service that the Syracuse churches do together. We’d been doing it every Wednesday at 7:00 am in one of our churches. When the pandemic happened, we began a Zoom prayer service. And it turns out that it’s better for me because my son has to go to school at 8:00. If I go to the service at 7:00, that’s hard for my husband. But participating in the service from home, I’m done by 7:45, and I can help my child get to school. Likewise, many parents with young kids can easily go to evening meetings done virtually, without hiring a babysitter. So, I think one of the upsides of the pandemic is that it brought us a new and bigger community of storytelling and way of doing church.

Jessica Anschutz: How can storytelling help us in these times of challenge, adversity, uncertainty?

Jee Hae Song: I think before we do the storytelling, we first need to know our own story. That helps us better understand who we are. Storytelling helps us understand who we are and who God is. It helps shape our identity.

I’ll tell you my call story. Back in 2013, I was in my second year of seminary. And I was asked to preach for the church where I served as an intern. The pastor wanted to go on vacation, so she asked if I could preach the next Sunday. So, I said, “yeah.” And then I freaked out because it’s my first time preaching, as any first-time preacher would. But also, preaching in English, which is my second language, was another burden for me. So, I was really nervous. But, as I was preparing my sermon, I found joy because God has been so great for me, for my life, and I was able to share that with people.

I don’t know how good that first sermon was. People said good things about it because they’re nice people. But that process confirmed for me the joy of sharing about God’s grace. That’s how I accepted God’s call to be a pastor, because if I become a pastor I will get to share my story of how God has been great for me on a weekly basis, or even more often. Through sharing my stories, I was able to confirm my call, my understanding of who I am, of who God is. And it can happen to anybody, I think. Even those not called to pastoral ministry still have a story to tell because God is working in each of our lives. When they can confirm what God calls them to be and who they are, it can help them fight against uncertainty.

Jessica Anschutz: I’ve found it challenging to empower laity to share their faith stories. What can congregations do to help people develop the skills to share their stories in order to share Christ with others?

Jee Hae Song: I think everyone’s already got skills. So perhaps a church leader’s job is to remind them or help them uncover the skills they already have. Again, storytelling can be done by anybody, but people just don’t realize that. So, a church leader’s job is to create opportunities to encourage people to think about their own lives through small groups, intimate and private conversations, or things like workshops work. But I think a small and intimate environment is more effective in enabling people to find their hidden storytelling skills. And it’s not just on a pastor’s shoulders. Other church leaders can model and encourage people to share their stories in an intimate, private setting so they realize, “Oh, yeah, I can do it. It’s not that difficult.”

Jessica Anschutz: And taking the opportunities to share in a small group will then empower you to share your story in other places. I could see that also working in various church committees. Sharing stories in those places helps members get to know one another and relate to one another and perhaps address the challenges, the uncertainty, the frustrations that they are going through together. In thinking about the biblical story, is there a particular story that really excites you?

Jee Hae Song: Yes. And I think that’s a good question that can be shared in a small group, “What Bible story do you love?” For me, one of my favorite Bible stories is Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In writing a paper on this parable for a New Testament class, I found that I had more pastoral concerns than academic concerns. Luke’s Gospel says that Lazarus was at the gate of a rich man. And he was so unclean even dogs came to lick the sores on his body. That shows that he was ritually unclean and the rich man probably didn’t want to deal with him. But he was lying there every time the rich man goes in and out of his house. He must have seen Lazarus, but the rich man did not reach out to help him. So when the rich man died and went to Hades, he asked Abraham to rescue him. But Abraham said, “Son, you had a lot in your lifetime, but Lazarus didn’t.” I interpreted that as he had chances to reach out to the poor, to reach out to the vulnerable, to reach out to the marginalized, and he didn’t do that. In my world, I interpreted it as, “when I have a chance in this life, I need to reach out, to cross this threshold to help, to guide people to God, to love them, to care for them.” That’s one of my defining stories from the Bible.

Jessica Anschutz: I appreciate your enthusiasm and passion for storytelling. What words of wisdom, do you have for folks who may be reluctant to share their story?

Jee Hae Song: I do not want to force or coerce anyone into storytelling if they’re not willing to. But what I would do, if anybody was unwilling, is to tell my story first. Tell your story first, tell them how excited you are about God’s greatness. You know, when you read a wonderful book or you watch this nice movie, you want to tell people about it because you want those people to enjoy it as well. The same applies to evangelism, how we tell other people about God. You want people to experience the same joy you have experienced. So, tell your story first. Then they will open up.


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About Author

Jee Hae Song is pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Syracuse, New York.
Photo courtesy Syracuse.com

Dr. Jessica Anschutz

Jessica L. Anschutz is co-editor of Leading Ideas and teaches in the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary. She also serves as Senior Pastor of a three-point charge in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Jessica participated in the Lewis Fellows program, the Lewis Center's leadership development program for young clergy.


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