Storytelling as Ministry

Brian Cavanaugh, TOR
© December 1994

Storytelling as ministry attempts to grapple with the quintessential questions of life, focusing on meaning and purpose. Men and women through the ages have struggled with these questions: "What is the meaning of...?" "Is there a purpose for...?" "Does my life have any meaning or purpose?"

A Deeper Meaning

Whenever, and wherever stories are told — be it through preaching, counseling, teaching — a chord is plucked within the understanding of the listeners. Often the story is heard by the ear, but listened to by the sub-conscious mind where its deeper meaning resides. The late Anthony de Mello, SJ provides an example:

The master gave his teaching in parables and stories, which his disciples listened to with pleasure — and occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper.

The master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, "You have yet to understand that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story." 1

Awaken the Sleeping Giant

Stories, myths, fables, fairy tales, and the like seep into the listener's inner resources and awaken the sleeping giant — the imagination. What enables stories to be effective in ministry, counseling or teaching is that they are objective to the person; therefore, they can be heard in a non-threatening manner.

Each person listens to a story through a personal filtering system, his or her own "ears to hear." Dr. David K. Reynolds in his book, Playing Ball On Running Water, discusses the Morita method of psychotherapy and says, "Consideration of a fairy tale sometimes gives the perspective and distance that eases the student's confrontation with the ways he or she avoids accepting reality as it is." 2

The use of storytelling in ministry is not a recent phenomenon. In 2 Samuel 12:1-7, the author places a secular story on the lips of the prophet Nathan when he confronts King David for committing evil by taking Bathsheba, and then having her husband Uriah killed: "The Lord sent Nathan to David, and when he came to him, he said:...‘In a certain town there were two men...'" David, not realizing the story was directed to himself, "grew very angry" at the injustice committed. "Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!'"

Which Road to Follow

Another example of ministry by means of stories came in a letter I received from a journalist-intern who interviewed me concerning my first book published by Paulist Press, The Sower's Seeds: One Hundred Inspiring Stories for Preaching, Teaching and Public Speaking. In his letter, the intern said:

"I am at a point in my life where I will have to make some serious career decisions. This helped me relate to the book on a personal level since I often wonder which road to follow. Somehow, after reading the book, I find these decisions somewhat less threatening."

To a writer, these words are tremendously heartening. Someone has been touched by your book. Your stories have helped light a few more torches along another person's life journey. Finally, such statements say, "Yes!" to the storyteller's own search for meaning and purpose.

Storytelling is an Art

Stories have taught, counseled, consoled and ministered to children of all ages. Raptly, we listened to the legends, myths and adventures of knights, witches, ducklings, dark woods, little trains, etc. Now, however, as the tellers of stories, we discover that there is greater need for story involvement than simply reading a story. We discover that there is an art to storytelling — a "putting on" the story itself.

M. Scott Peck, 3 in his memorable book The Road Less Traveled, begins with a most candid paragraph, "Life is difficult." Period. Second paragraph.

To continue this thought, I would add also that storytelling is difficult. What makes storytelling difficult is that it can be demanding and frustrating. It is demanding in trying to find just the right story for a particular occasion, and frustrating in not always being sure how the story is being received by the listeners. However difficult it might seem at times, storytelling contains a positive character in that it frequently enriches and enlivens the teller of the story more than the listeners.

A Master Storyteller

Time is well-spent reflecting on a master storyteller, Jesus of Nazareth, as he tells a parable or a story. One can envision the event being told, and sense storytelling "as pointing to a greater reality which lay beyond. It is an approach to life which we have been in danger of losing, this sense of allowing the extraordinary to break in on the ordinary." 4

Those who tell stories envision and attempt to disclose the transcendence of the immanent, as well as, the immanence of the transcendent in the daily lives of their listeners. "If we can rediscover this vision, then we too may be able to transform what lies to hand, let the mundane become the edge of glory, and find the extraordinary in the ordinary." 5

Among the requirements for storytelling are the "childlike" qualities of wonder, imagination and creativity. These qualities empower one to perceive a greater reality already within the ordinary daily activities of life.

Zig Ziglar states that the most powerful nation is — one's imagination. However, as one grows older it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain these qualities of wonder, imagination and creativity. They seem to shrivel up and whither. Too often, as the child grows into an adult, he or she becomes adulterated.

A study was once performed to measure a person's level of creativity. The results were that persons aged 40 measured 2 percent creativity; persons aged 17 measured 10percent; and 5-year-olds measured a 90 percent level of creativity. 6

Storytellers, therefore, have to be vigilant that they do not develop cataracts of the spirit, nor arthritis of the mind. These are symptoms of an acute disease plaguing every man and woman past the age of 17 — "Psychosclerosis." Psychosclerosis comes from the Greek term psyche, or "mind," and the Latin term sclerosis, as in arteriosclerosis, or "hardening of." Therefore, psychosclerosis is the hardening of one's mind, imagination, or attitudes, for which we need a frequent "check up from the neck up," as Zig often says.

We know at this point that medical science does not have a cure for arthritis, but there is a treatment — namely, flex and stretch. As for the body, so for one's mind and attitudes, we need to continuously stretch our thoughts, flex our thinking. Otherwise one's mind will continue its insipid hardening, becoming more inflexible, closing in on itself, until one becomes tomb-like.

One of the frustrations a storyteller has to confront is the uncertainty, at times, about whether he or she is getting the message across to the listeners. The transmitter (storyteller) is sending out a signal (story) but to what frequency is the receiver (listener) tuned?

There is a biblical parable that brings solace in dealing with such feelings of frustration. It is the parable, "The Seed Grows of Itself," found in Mark 4:26-29:

"A man scatters seed on the ground. The farmer goes to bed and gets up day after day. Through it all the seed sprouts and grows without his knowing how it happens."

Frequently storytelling in ministry is like the farmer who scatters the seeds. Stories contain within themselves a dynamic life-force capable of sprouting, growing and bearing fruit in the lives of the listeners without the storyteller knowing how it happens. It is, therefore, the primary task of a storyteller simply to keep telling stories, like the farmer who faithfully scatters the seed.

Within ministry, counseling, or teaching the growth and the harvest may not be seen by the storyteller. But he or she can be assured that, if the soil of the mind and spirit are fertile, the stories will sprout and they will bear abundant fruit. Joel Weldon 7 tells a story about a Chinese bamboo plant that further illustrates this point.

The moso is a bamboo plant that grows in China and other regions of the Far East. After the moso is planted, no visible growth occurs for up to five years — even under ideal conditions! Then, as if by magic, it suddenly begins growing at the rate of nearly two-and-one-half feet per day, reaching a full height of 90 feet within six weeks.

But it's not magic. The moso's rapid growth is due to the miles of roots it develops during those first five years, five years of getting ready.

Enter Into the Story

An effective storyteller, in a sense, has to enter into the story. Martin Buber tells the story of his grandfather who was asked to relate a story about his great teacher, the famous and holy Baal Shem Tov.

The paralyzed grandfather replied by telling how the holy man used to jump up and down and dance when he was praying. Being swept up in the fervor of the narrative, the grandfather, himself, stood up and began to jump and dance to show how the master had done it. At that moment the grandfather was completely healed of his paralysis. 8

Now that is an example of entering fully into the story. For others, the telling a story might not be so dramatic of an experience as it was for the grandfather. However, the storyteller needs to remember that most communication occurs via nonverbal transmissions.

Stories are meant to be told, not read. They demand consideration of one's gesture, voice inflection, posture, tempo and facial expression. The late Marshall McLuhan rightly said, "The medium is the message."

Stories Form Mental Images

A story is formed in the mind of the listener by word-pictures, much like a language incorporating a picture-symbol alphabet. The story unfolds as scenes in the mind of the hearer that take shape as if they were on mental videotape. How the story is told becomes a positive or a negative influence on the quality of the word-pictures which the person hears and assimilates.

Yes, it is demanding and difficult to be a storyteller. Yet to feel, in the process of the telling, the scintillation, even once, of a story surging through the fiber of one's self, effecting a sense of "being swept up in the fervor of the narrative," is all that is needed for the man or woman to discover the vitality contained within the story. This vitality enriches and enlivens the teller as much as the listener.

The Storyteller's Creed 9

by Robert Fulghum

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge,
That myth is more potent than history,
That dreams are more powerful than facts,
That hope always triumphs over experience,
That laughter is the only cure for grief,
And I believe that love is stronger than death.


  1. Anthony de Mello, SJ, One Minute Wisdom, NY: Doubleday, 1986, p. 23.
  2. David K. Reynolds, Playing Ball on Running Water, NY: Quill, 1984, p. 117.
  3. The rest of this article is largely taken from the introduction to The Sower's Seeds, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990, pp. 1-4.
  4. Esther de Waal, "The Extraordinary in the Ordinary," Weavings, May/June, 1987, p. 8.
  5. Ibid., p. 15.
  6. Glenn VanEkeren, ed. The Speaker's Sourcebook, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988, p. 106.
  7. Joel Weldon, "Build a Better You" audio tape.
  8. Martin Buber, source unknown.
  9. Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, NY: Villard Books, 1988, p. 1.