Shaping storytelling groups

© Revd Rex A E Hunt
Director of Communications
Uniting Church Assembly Communications Unit
27 March 1992

For:  The Joint Board of Christian Education Melbourne and Uniting Church Assembly National Mission & Evangelism Committee Sydney

An edited version of this was published as “Shaping a storytelling group” in (Ed). C. Crowe. (1992). Growing as Christians. CEL series. Issues. Vic: Melbourne. JBCE.


So you want to start groups where members will be invited to tell their stories...
Great! Storytelling as a model of communication has been my passion for the past six years at least.

I hope these notes may help in your discussions. My experience comes out of work which I am completing, this year as part of an honours MSc degree at one of Sydney's universities. For your information, the area of research I am involved in is... narrative and indirect communication in an electronic society.

Some comments at the beginning... 1. Is is important that members of any group appreciate that the group is not a bible study group or a counselling group; 2. That storytelling is not about learning techniques or how to tell stories, such as the children's story in worship services; 3. That the person who assumes a leadership role within the group, does so as an enabler and not as a leader. Storytelling requires authors and co- authors rather than 'leaders'; 4. Oral storytelling is different from written storytelling.

With those few comments out of the way, perhaps the following notes will help the group enabler.

Many of us have left the storied or symbolic approach to life at the kindergarten door and crossed the threshold into adulthood to more logical, didactic (rhetoric) ways of making sense of the world. As a result many of us have become unstoried in our spiritual life; we have lost the ability to probe the soul.  

When we have used stories they have been regarded as merely a form of entertainment or illustration. Some even argue that 'story' is subordinate to the more didactic way of making sense of life.

This is not so. Stories are an essential account of social experience. However, rather than argue about who is right or wrong, it may be more helpful to imagine both 'story' and 'rhetoric' as being in stereo. Both distinct, but in parallel to each other.

Most models of communication. are based on the assumption that it is about putting something (information, faith, etc.) into someone else (who lacks this). This approach to communication is very linear, one-way and, I believe, inadequate.

Story on the other hand, is the oldest structured form of communication. It is about resonating with something within (experience of the world, memories, etc.), bringing that experience to 'the surface', and re-shaping our sensitivities and feelings about that experience and/or memories.

Story revisits an old situation in a new way.

People will tell and retell experiences that have invoked a more-than- ordinary 'impression' upon them. But, the way the stories are told is an oral way, which is very different to the way we use story in a written form. In a group situation people will be sharing oral stories rather than written, polished stories.

An oral story will often contain incomplete sentences and many pauses and breaks. That is, as people tell their story, others resonate with the experiences. 'Mm' and 'yea' and 'right' will be verbal expressions as the 'hearer' participates with the 'teller' and weaves meaning. These comments and pauses should be allowed to happen. Oral communication is about sound, rhythm, melody, like "twisted knots". Written and/or polished stories bring with them a detachment and a critical attitude.

And people will link other's stories with their own experiences... "That reminds me of..." is a common form of linking one story with another.

We live in and out of stories.

Different sorts of stories... While most of us would say 'a story is a story', actually stories fit into several categories.

1. Foundational: also can be called 'myths'. They are the stories we as individuals tell which establish our world views; 

2. Collective memory: similar to Foundational stories, but can be the stories communities and congregations tell to 'explain why we do the things we do';

3. Parable: where a myth sets up a world view, parables upset a world view; 

4. Pseudo story: stories told to 'cover up the real story'; 

5. Counter stories: offer alternative stories to the accepted or dominating story.

I believe it will be from the Foundational and Collective memory categories that the stories will come during any CEL storytelling group.

Meeting with the group... 

1. I have found it helpful to include music early on in the meeting - taped music from Taize; 

2. Sharing your expectations and purpose of the group can removed some - only some - of the anxieties from people; 

3. A story from your experience can help others in the group feel comfortable and can act as an invitation to continue the story flow; 

4. Few of us have or are only one story. Instead, we are many unfinished stories; 5. Only some will have ever kept a journal before. While for some this will resemble a diary with daily events and feelings recorded, others may find the model offered by T Rainer in her book The new diary as more appropriate - that is, looking at significant events in your life; 

6. There is a need to establish whether the journals are for personal use only, or if they are to be shared with members of the group at a later date; 

7. An image to begin with: invite members to share in a journey. But instead of travelling along the freeways and highways - which are about arriving at destinations; invite them to take their time, enjoy the back roads and scenery. The trip is important not just arriving somewhere; 

8. Each member of the group, then, is in the process of becoming and therefore is not only capable of but deserving the right to participate in and arrive at a 'conclusion' of their own rather than that of the 'leader'.

And finally... Stories are like poems. They are not to be 'understood'. Once we try to understand them, we silence them. Rather, a story is like a sonata, a love embrace, a sunset: we want then to be repeated, because their savour is inexhaustible.

Some resources which will help you on your 'story' journey...
Amirtham, S. (Ed). (1988). Stories make people. Examples of theological work in community. Switzerland: Geneva. WCC Publications.
Bausch, W. J. (1991). Telling stories. Compelling stories. Connecticut: Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications.
Bausch, W. J. (1984). Storytelling: Imagination and faith. Connecticut: Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications.
Boomershine, T. E. (1988). Story joumey. An invitation to the gospel as storytelling. TN: Nashville. Abingdon.
Butcher, H. M. (1990). Story as a way to God. A guide for storytellers. CA: San Jose. Resource Publications.
Rainer, T. (1978). The new diary. How to use a joumal for self guidance and expanded creativity. NSW: Australia. Angus & Robertson.
R. Rebera & M. Richards. (Ed). (1991). Remembering the future. Australian women's stories, dreams and visions for the twenty-first century. Victoria:
Brunswick. David Lovell Publishing.
Shea, J. (1983). An experience named spirit. Illinois: Chicago. Thomas More Press.
Shea, J. (1980). Stories of faith. Illinois: Chicago. Thomas More Press.
Shea, J. (1978). Stories of God. An unauthorized biography. Illinois: Chicago. Thomas More Press.
Tilley, T. W. (1985). Story theology. Theology in life series 12. Delaware: Wilmington. Michael Glazier.