Storytelling project helps build relationships for Holston's future

Storytelling project helps build relationships for Holston's future

The Rev. Carol Wilson leads the "Hearing Our Stories" project at Annual Conference in Lake Junaluska. "This is not a debate. It's not about persuasion. It's about sharing and hearing our stories." Photo by Kathie Wilson-Parker

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. -- Sixty-four stories help tell the overall story of Holston Conference and the people of faith in its churches. Sixty-four stories might be a window into how the people called United Methodists can move into the future, says the Rev. Carol Wilson.

The 64 stories, submitted by church members, were collected earlier this month as Wilson led the Holston Annual Conference in a community-building project. During the June 4-7 meeting at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, participants were invited to write a short story in response to a different “prompt” shared each day.
The four prompts included, “Share a time when you were proud of Holston Conference” and, “Share a time when your church made a difference in your community or beyond.”

The responses from United Methodists attending Annual Conference provide revealing glimpses into other people’s lives -- which could help to heal and strengthen the church after the trauma of disaffiliation, says Wilson, the former Holston communications director who created the story project.

“We tend to go at each other with facts and persuasion, arguments and debates,” she said. “This invites us to instead experience hospitality and relationships ... We’ve got to hear each other better, to find a way to share our stories in a way that helps us thrive.”

Wilson, who retired in 2021 after 30 years of serving in local-church ministry or on the Holston cabinet, said she felt called to learn more about how sharing and hearing each other’s stories can be transformational.

“I’ve continued to listen to what tugs at my heart, and a constant theme that keeps emerging is how we hear each other and how we can use that to build relationships,” said Wilson, who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee.

She read the book, “Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us,” by Mark Yaconelli, founder and executive director of The Hearth in Ashland, Oregon. Wilson is currently participating in a March-to-September online cohort led by Yaconelli. The “Hearing Our Stories” effort created for the Holston Annual Conference is her required project for the "Certificate in Community Storytelling" training.

Other ways that cohort members are using storytelling in their projects include working with persons in recovery from addiction, supporting children with special needs, and helping people in educational settings or in need of spiritual direction, Wilson said.

After receiving approval from the Annual Conference planning team, Wilson set up a tent near Stuart Auditorium during the June 4-7 gathering at Lake Junaluska. Ushers handed out flyers explaining the story project and the daily prompts. Participants were invited to take their handwritten responses to the tent, where they were displayed for others to read in between sessions. An email address and art supplies at the tent were alternate ways to share stories.

“Part of the fun is what is stimulated by the story prompts or hearing other people’s stories,” Wilson said. She and her sister, the Rev. Kathie Wilson-Parker, had conversations at the tent about stories that were displayed.

"People said to us, ‘That one was great,’ or ‘That one touched my heart,’” Wilson said. Others were inspired to verbally share a story on the spot.

“It did what I hoped it would do,” Wilson said of the project. “It drew out voices we might not have heard, some inspirational, some informational. Some stories were about starting new ministries, or how we were there for children, or how we took a risk. Some were remembering how important our relationships have been.”

The project “did remind us that we have stories to tell and stories to hear that give us hope and vision for the future,” Wilson added. “The idea is that by recalling God's faithfulness in the past we can better recognize God's movement in the future.”

Now that they’ve been typed for easy reading, the stories have been shared with conference leaders and ministry groups who requested them, including Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett and the Strategy Team.

For Holston Conference members who still wish to respond to the prompts, stories will be accepted through July 15 at 

Read project explanation.
  • Story prompt 1: Share a time when you were proud of Holston Conference.
  • Story prompt 2: Share a time when your church made a difference in your community or beyond.
  • Story prompt 3: Share a time when you experienced a gift or gifts of the Spirit in your congregation (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control).
  • Story prompt 4: Share a time when your congregation rejoiced or celebrated together.
Read all stories collected June 4-7 at Annual Conference.

Holston Conference includes member churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia, with main offices in Alcoa, Tennessee. Sign up for a free email subscription to The Call newsletter.


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Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.