Preaching in the mountains: 5 lessons from 3 storytellers

Preaching in the mountains: 5 lessons from 3 storytellers

(Left to right) The Rev. Michael Williams, Loyal Jones, and the Rev. Charles Maynard swap stories and lessons at Henderson Settlement.


FRAKES, Ky. (Aug. 16, 2015) – The storytellers laughed as much – in fact, more -- than their listeners.

On Aug. 14, Henderson Settlement hosted its second “MountainTalk” ministry conversation series, bringing three authors and speakers together for a storytelling and preaching workshop on its mountain campus. Two of the storytellers are also United Methodist preachers.

The Rev. Michael Williams, age 64, is senior pastor at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., and editor of “The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible” series published by Abingdon Press. The Rev. Charles Maynard, 60, is Maryville District superintendent in Holston Conference and former director of advancement at the International Storytelling Center.

Loyal Jones, 87, is co-author of “Laughter in Appalachia” and former longtime director of Appalachian Studies at Berea College, now housed in the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center in Berea, Ky.

Between the Appalachian stories and anecdotes that had participants splitting their sides and ROLFing, here are five take-away lessons that emerged from the day-long event attended by 30 clergy and lay members from seven states.


1. If you want your congregation to listen on Sunday, you have to listen during the week.

 “When you’re a pastor, part of your job is to listen to other people,” Maynard said. “I’ve got notebooks of phrases that I’ve heard in conversations.”

Listening to others not only provides material for future stories, the intimacy and loyalty that comes from giving one’s attention to another helps anchor a pastor or church leader in the community, Maynard said. (He added that it’s also important to listen to a community’s music, whether it’s your personal favorite or not.)

Maynard remembered a lecture he heard from Rev. William Sloane Coffin when Maynard was a theology student, a lesson that stuck as he tended to his own congregations:

“He said, ‘I’m with them in the hospital, at the graveside, when the baby is born, and when their world is falling apart,’” Maynard recalled, “’and that’s why they’re willing to listen to me on Sunday.'” 


2. We are kin when we share a story.

"It’s all about relationships,” Williams said about being a preacher (and therefore) resident storyteller in a community. “We have the privilege of having a face-to-face conversation with people every week about something that we think is important. I don’t think we realize the opportunity that we have.”

Telling a story to another develops a bond between speaker and listener, but also to story characters, Williams said. “We develop a relationship with the inner world, which we call imagination or faith, and the outer world, which we call life … All that is shaped by the stories we tell other people.”

A good story, like the parables that Jesus told, “anchors us in the holy, in the mystery that is beyond our understanding,” Williams said.

Maynard shared a story about his daughter Anna, then age 4, who was sitting in her father’s lap years ago when Williams spoke at the National Storytellers Festival. Later, Anna borrowed a line from Williams’ story when she told her dad, “I love you like meat loves salt.”

“Stories, for me, express the things that are deepest in our hearts,” Maynard said, “and the parables express what’s deepest in God’s heart to us.”


3. Humor opens windows to relationships and ideas.

“Humor is one of our great coping mechanisms,” Jones said. “We’ve got to be willing to laugh at our human condition, including our departure from this life.”

He demonstrated how humor tears down walls by joking about United Methodists -- a “peculiar” and “abstemious kind of people” -- and persons from other faiths.

(“Are you Methodist?” “No, I’ve been sick.”)

(“Are you Baptist?” “No, I’ve got ingrown toenails.”)

Jones told a story about Brooks Hays, an Arkansas lawyer who would later be elected to Congress and serve as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the 1930s, he promoted the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal, using humorous stories to introduce an initiative that could help the poor.

Hays’ listeners laughed so hard they were crying, he said, “and then later they were crying but over a new sentiment.”

“If you’re laughing, you’re open,” Jones said. “You can’t laugh and be mad at the same time.”

Maynard noted that historically, a healthy person was said to be “in good humor,” and yet “we often abandon humor when we want to be religious or correct.”


4. You can judge a good story by a child’s response.

Children don’t pretend to listen when they’re not engaged, so the highest compliment for a storyteller is when parents say they heard their kids talking about it, Williams said.

“I judge my preaching by how our children and youth respond."

Williams said he enjoys the moment when children begin to realize that a tall tale is just that. “You can see it in their faces when they begin to catch on,” he said, “and from then on it’s like sharing a secret.” 

The stories most likely to be remembered and re-shared from Sunday morning are often the children’s sermon, the storytellers noted – which tells preachers a lot about the kinds of messages that endure.


5. A good story doesn’t have to be explained.

“Jesus didn’t go around explaining his stories,” Maynard said. “Think about it … If there was a paragraph after every parable that said, ‘Let me explain to you what this means.’”

Nor did Jesus use adjectives in his parables, “because if you too many adjectives, the audience has nothing to do,” Maynard said.

The three storytellers discussed the power of the narrative, referring to the story of the rich man and poor man used by Nathan when reprimanding David for committing adultery in 2 Samuel.

“That idea of the narrative relaxes us,” Maynard said. Storytellers (and preachers and writers) use repetition, space and pause to relax and draw their listeners in. Success is resisting the rush to explain a story’s meaning, and the same can be said for scripture.

“We’re pressing so hard on what it means that we don’t let them hear the scripture,” Maynard said. “What we’re pressing on is our interpretation of the scripture. It’s not that we don’t seek meaning, but we rush it and don’t let people hear it.”



See more photos on  Henderson Settlement's Facebook page.



Annette Spence

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