“The Power of Storytelling in Ministry” featuring Jee Hae Song

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Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
“The Power of Storytelling in Ministry” featuring Jee Hae Song
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Podcast Episode 103

How can storytelling impact your ministry? And how can you inspire others to share their stories? Jee Hae Song believes we all have gifts for storytelling. In this episode she shares part of her story to inspire others to share how God works in their lives.

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Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly e-newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Leading Ideas Talks is also brought you by The Right Start. If you’re a pastor preparing to begin ministry in a new setting, this video tool kit will lead you in ending your current ministry well, developing a personal transition plan, and making the most of your first days, weeks, and months in your new congregation. Learn more and watch a preview video at churchleadership.com/therightstart.

How can storytelling impact your ministry? And how can you inspire others to share their stories? Jee Hae Song believes we all have gifts for storytelling, In this episode she shares part of her story to inspire others to share how God works in their lives.

Jessica Anschutz: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners, I am Jessica Anschutz, one of the editors of the Leading Ideas e-newsletter, and I am your host for this Leading Ideas Talks. Joining me is Jee Hae Song, Pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Syracuse, New York. Welcome Jee Hae, I look forward to our conversation about storytelling today.

Jee Hae Song: Hi, Jessica. Thank you for having me.

Jessica Anschutz: As we start off today, Jee Hae, I want to invite you to talk about how your personal story impacts your ministry.

Jee Hae Song: Yes, it has been now six years that I’ve served as a pastor in United Methodist Church. I was invited a lot to talk about my story in various situations, you know, things like my board interview, but also in preparing my sermon, in the small group situation and classes like confirmation class, and all that. Then I came to think about “how does my life experience affect who I am now?” and “what kind of God do I serve?” I began to think about “how does that affect me?” but also “how can I relate it to people through my stories?” So, I thought about it and found out that when I talk about my personal stories in connection to the message that I am conveying, people actually like it better.

When I first began my ministry, when I prepare my sermon, for example, I look for good sermon illustrations on the internet or from a book that I can fill in the gaps so that people can laugh, and all that. But I don’t know — maybe that story wasn’t effective or maybe it didn’t really hit people. People are going to connect to it, but when I tell people my own stories, they are able to relate to it and appreciate it. They come back to me after Sunday service and come alive: “I liked what you said because I can connect to it,” and all that. I think that I see the power of the storytelling in the ministry, so I think that’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: Yeah, absolutely. I am a mom of a three-year-old. He’s almost four. He will be four next month, and his name is Joshua. Joshua’s story is the story that I use the most these days, because he gives me a lot to tell other people. One good example of that is the recent newsletter story that I wrote for the congregation. I just finished it up yesterday, so it’s fresh for me. My sermon focus after Easter was about how the first Christians witnessed the resurrected Lord and they were called to share the Good News by witnessing what they experienced. And I want to teach people that that is the basis of what we call evangelism — how we experience God and how we tell that to people instead of just forcing people to believe. So, I told people about how I said that to my son, Joshua. I told people about the story of how we have conversations before he goes to sleep in the bed. We lie down together, and I ask him about “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 told him about my day. You know, I did this and that and that. And then, when he listens to my story, he opens up and begins to talk about his day, and I was able to see the glimpse of his life without me.

I tell people I think that’s exactly what it is — tell people about what I experienced so that they can open up. I believe that they all have experienced God, God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s grace in their life, and that’s great. Why don’t you tell them? And that eventually will help these people open up to the Good News of Jesus. So that’s how I connect my story to my message. So, that’s a good example for that.

Jessica Anschutz: It’s wonderful that Joshua provides so much inspiration for your ministry and so many stories.

Jee Hae Song: Yeah, challenges and inspirations at the same time.

Jessica Anschutz: I’m sure. How has hearing the stories of others impacted your ministry?

Jee Hae Song: That’s really a good question and that’s the way that I want to become more and more improved. I consider myself an introvert, like many other pastors, so the nature of the pastoral ministry is not easy for me sometimes because of interacting with other people. As introverts can agree that, you know, sometimes being with people drains your energy and I sometimes 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 am more interested in my thing, myself, my world instead of others’ world. So, when I begin ministry and learn that that is something — even though that’s out of my comfort zone —that’s something that I have to dive into.

So, I decided to be a good listener and eventually I will hear people’s stories through these visits, through one-on-one conversations, through the conversations after church, and all that. People begin to share their stories, and they say I’m a good listener so I take that as a compliment. That opens the opportunity to be more loving, more compassionate, more caring for the people that I serve.

Jessica Anschutz: That’s such an important reminder, the need to be a good listener and to hear people’s stories and to meet them where they are. 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 by being an example for the people. In fact, I think that’s the most important virtue for any leader — to be an example and be a model for the people they lead. And that’s why I do storytelling to the people that I serve — to show them examples and invite them to do likewise. And the good thing about storytelling is that anybody can do it. Maybe I can share a little bit about it later. But storytelling — you don’t need a degree for that. You don’t need like a training for that. You can do it. Maybe some people are a little more reluctant to do it because they’re not used to it, but we all do, one way or another. The job of the leaders is to show people that it can be anybody’s job: it’s easy and I’ll show you how. Modeling, I’ll say, is a good way to encourage people to share their stores.

Jessica Anschutz: Modeling effective leadership and good storytelling certainly must lead to bearing good fruit in ministry. Over the last two plus years, we have been in the midst of a global pandemic, and the pandemic has brought about new ways of communicating. We’re gathered here today on Zoom. How have these new methods of communicating and interacting and gathering given birth to new ways for sharing stories?

Jee Hae Song: I think pandemic brought more challenges than benefits to be honest. It’s challenging because, first of all, our models of communication, the models we are used to, were no longer available. Especially the first six weeks, six months of the pandemic, we were — all of a sudden — all told to shut down and tell people “Don’t come to church. Stay home.” Then we begin to develop the way to replace the traditional way of communication, so many churches develop the livestreaming or Zoom service.

But the upside of it, I think, is that online communication tools allow us to have less restriction of time and space, as you can agree. There are people who are immunocompromised and they are still afraid to come to church because they might have COVID and that can cause them a serious illness. But they can watch our service. Well, I don’t want to use the word “watch” — they can worship online still. There are people who … 10:30 in the morning doesn’t work because they have a job, but they can always come back in the evening time to worship, and not even for the worship service. We can meet for various church purposes virtually to overcome the restrictions of time and space.

The good example for that is morning prayer service that the Syracuse churches do together. We’ve been doing it every Wednesday at 7:00 in one of our churches. When the pandemic happened, we begin Zoom prayer service. And it turns out that it’s better for me because, now that I have a child and he has to go to school at 8:00, if I go service at 7:00, that’s hard for my husband. But now that I’m home and the service will be done by 7:45, I can help my child to go to school. Likewise, many parents with young kids can easily go to evening meetings if it’s done virtually, without hiring a babysitter. You know, I think this pandemic brought us a new and bigger community of storytelling and way of doing church, so I think that’s the upside of the pandemic.

 


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Jessica Anschutz: You’re absolutely right in naming that there were many challenges and continue to be many challenges related to the pandemic, but I think the upside is that it has allowed us to reach more people in in different spaces. As you think about storytelling, how can storytelling help us in in these times of challenges, adversity, uncertainty?

Jee Hae Song: I think before we do the storytelling, we need to know about our own story first, and that helps to better understand who I am and, I think I just mentioned it earlier, storytelling helps us to understand who I am and who God is. So, it helps our identity.

I was asked to talk about it, so I’ll tell you my call story. I was in seminary. I was in second year in seminary back in 2013, and I was asked to preach for the church that I was serving at the moment. I was church intern for that church and my pastor wanted to go on vacation, so she was asking if I can preach this Sunday. So, I said, “yeah.” And then I freaked out because it’s my first time preaching — as any first-time preacher would — and then preaching in the English, which is my second language, is another burden for me. So, I was really nervous. But, as I was preparing my sermon, I found joy in that because I’ve been experiencing the great God. God has been so great for me, my life, and I was able to share that with people.

I don’t know how good I was for my first preaching. People just say good things about it because they’re nice people, but I didn’t think I was really good in my giving a sermon. 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 that’s what I will do if I become a pastor — share my story how God has been great for me to the people on the weekly basis or even more often than that. Through sharing my stories, I was able to confirm my call, my understanding of who I am, who God is. And it can happen to anybody I think, even though they are not called to ministry. Still, we all have a story to tell because God is working in each of our lives. When they think about that, they can confirm what God calls them to be and who they are, so it could have helped them to fight against uncertainty.

Jessica Anschutz: Absolutely. Earlier, you mentioned the importance of evangelism. And storytelling is certainly a key part of sharing about the transformative love of Jesus. One of the challenges I have found in ministry is empowering the laity to share their story, to share their faith story. What may congregations do to help people develop their skills to share their stories in order to share Christ with others?

Jee Hae Song: Oh, I think, again, everyone’s already got skills. So perhaps a church’s job or church leaders’ job is to remind them or help them to find the hidden skills that they already have. Again, storytelling can be done by anybody. I strongly believe people just don’t know that. On Easter Sunday, for example, I shared my own testimony about how God has called me to ministry, and this lady came to me after church. She was so touched by the story, but “I can’t do that,” she said. And it was in a fleeting moment, you know, that’s after church. I was greeting people, so I didn’t have enough time to talk over it. But if I did have time, I’d say, “No, that’s not true. You do.”

So, I guess my job and church leaders’ job is to make opportunity to encourage people to think about their own life. Storytelling skills through things like small groups or any intimate and private conversations and things like workshops work. But to enable people to find their hidden storytelling skills, I think more of a small and intimate environment is more effective. A small group, I think, is the best way to encourage people to do it because it’s not too big. It’s not just on a pastor’s shoulder to do it, but church leaders can also help people to do it by example, by modeling, and encourage people to share their own stories in an intimate private setting so that they will realize by doing it that, “Oh, yeah, I can do it. It’s not that difficult.” I think that’s good.

Jessica Anschutz: You raise the concept that you have to practice.

Jee Hae Song: Yes.

Jessica Anschutz: And taking the opportunities that are presented to you to share will then empower you to share your story in other places. I appreciate your idea about doing it in small groups. I could see that also working in committees, on the various church committees, if you’re invited to share their stories in those places. It also has the benefit of helping them get to know one another and relate to one another and perhaps address the challenges, the uncertainty, the frustrations that you’re going through together.

Jee Hae Song: Absolutely, absolutely.

Jessica Anschutz: In thinking about the biblical story, is there a particular story that really excites you?

Jee Hae Song: Yes, and I think that question can help other people to identify what they cherish especially. So, maybe that’s a good question that can be shared in a small group — you know, what kind of Bible story that you love.

For me, one of my favorite Bible stories is from Jesus. It’s his parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and I actually wrote a term paper about it in college because I took the New Testament class, and I wrote about it. In writing the paper, in fact, I found that I have more pastoral concerns than academic concerns. What I wrote about this story in my term papers was the poor guy, Lazarus. Luke’s Gospel says that Lazarus was at the gate of the rich man. He was there and he was so unclean even dogs came to lick his sores on his body. That shows that he was a ritually unclean person, and probably the rich person who wants to be ritually clean didn’t want to deal with him. But he was lying there all the time, and every time the rich man goes in and out of his house, he must have seen him. But in his lifetime, the rich man did not reach out to help Lazarus.

When he died — the rich man, I put it this way: He did not cross his threshold to help Lazarus, so when he died and went to Hades, he talked to Abraham and asked Abraham to rescue him. But then 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 that I found from the Bible.

Jessica Anschutz: It also works for evangelism. When you have the opportunity to share the story, share it.

Jee Hae Song: Absolutely. When you see the chance, do it.

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, it will be to tell my story first, as I just shared with you previously. If anyone is asking the same question who is willing to share their story, and it was to help others to share their story, it would be the same: tell your story first, tell them how excited you are about God’s greatness. You know that, for example, when you read a wonderful book or you watch this nice movie, then you want to tell people about it because they’re nice and you want those people to enjoy that as well. Same applies to evangelism, how we tell about God to other people — you want these people to experience the same joy. They have experiences, so tell them first, tell your story first. Then they will open up.

Jessica Anschutz: That’s great advice.

Jee Hae Song: Thank you.

Jessica Anschutz: Thank you so much for your time today for engaging in this conversation and taking time out of your very full schedule to talk with us.

Jee Hae Song: Yes, it’s a joy and pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks. Don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly e-newsletter, Leading Ideas, to be notified when new episodes are published. Visit churchleadership.com/leadingideas.


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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.