Just a brief warning: this essay claims to share no great wisdom. It won’t give you either step-by-step hints about technology (a la An Ordained Geek Becomes a Televangelist) or assist you with deep reflection on a subject (a la… um). If you know you are interested in the way a pastor/writer/musician’s life works, this seems like something you’d appreciate. If you’re not, or don’t think you are, it’s harder to predict. Give it a try. Who knows? As well as learning something about me, you might learn something about you.
One of the most frequent descriptions people apply to me is: “storyteller.” It’s a title I receive with gratitude. I like telling stories. I like listening to stories. I like preparing stories for others to hear. I like interacting with them while I do.
As a pastor, I have always told stories, most often as part of a “Children’s Time” or “Moment with the Children” in worship. I’ve told stories in other contexts as well – places like summer camp or vacation Bible school – but for the most part they’ve had a place in worship.
For many, many years of my ministry, I prepared no more than a sketch for each story. I preached from notes. For stories I used no notes at all. Occasionally I would take time afterward to write the narrative in full, but that usually only happened when I’d had a specific request. As much as people told me they appreciated the stories, those requests were rare.
Then the stories became rare. For about fifteen years of my ministry I did not serve a local church. My responsibilities as a member of a UCC Conference staff did not include a great deal of worship leadership. I preached little and I told stories less – in part, because I developed the habit of telling one particular story the first time I spoke anywhere (that story isn’t on this blog, which I ought to correct at some point).
In 2016 I laid down my responsibilities in New England and took up the pastorate of Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo. For the first time in a long time, I had to prepare a weekly sermon. For the first time in a long time, I had to prepare a weekly story.
During the preceding years, I’d made a big shift in my preaching practice. I’d switched to preparing a full manuscript rather than using notes. I’d done it, in fact, when I was invited to the pulpit of the church in which I worshiped. They had two Sunday morning services and the timing was a little tight. I had to control for time. A manuscript did the job. By the time I came to Hilo, I’d settled into the pattern and was happy with it.
I had not, however, made a similar adjustment with stories. The stories received no more than a few sparse notes. Within a few weeks I decided that I did want to share a written version of each one, so I began writing each story up on Sunday afternoon. The first was “Sun Astonished” in May 2016.
It turned out that this work process of Sunday afternoon note expansion wasn’t sustainable. Many of the church’s boards and committees met on Sunday afternoons, further separating the writing from the storytelling. Putting the sermon online required more work as we added an audio recording. The church’s electronic newsletter demanded attention on Sunday afternoons so that the office manager could send it Monday mornings. Gaps began to appear. In November 2018 “The ‘Apapane’s Own Song” became the last story to appear on this blog for over three years.
How have they returned?
Thank you, COVID.
When Church of the Holy Cross moved to an online-only worship format in March 2020 in the first days of the pandemic, I made a new shift in preparing sermons and stories. A streamed worship service, I felt, needed to take less time. I dropped several elements, mostly hymns and musical responses. I also merged the story with the sermon, or rather, I led the sermon with the story. For over two years the first words out of my mouth after the Scripture had been read were the first words of a story.
I began to craft the story as part of the sermon, and that meant that it would receive a full manuscript in its composition. That made sense for my writing process but it also made sense for the worship experiences I was trying to support. Along with the worship outline and response materials, I posted a written text of my sermon to the church website before worship each Sunday. Those with hearing difficulties or technical difficulties would have the sermon text to read as well as that of the pastoral prayer.
And, because it was the first thing in the sermon manuscript, they had the story.
On April 24, 2022, we resumed worshiping with a gathered congregation. On that first Sunday I continued the practice of combining the story and the sermon. I received some feedback, some very clear feedback, that that would not do. The young people liked the stories, but they also liked the time with their pastor, a time which said that they were important to me and to the Church and to God. Time with the Children returned on May 1.
When it did, I did not return to my long-time practice of brief notes. I kept writing the full manuscripts, and I also write the story before beginning the sermon proper. We continue to live-stream the service over the Internet, and that means a backup copy could easily be helpful. So now each worship service on our website includes a manuscript of the sermon, of the pastoral prayer, and of the story.
Those experiences do not and cannot match. In a virtual worship service, I could and did (mostly) read the story as written. With a congregation present – with children present – I do not use notes for the story except to remember certain words I’m likely to forget. I may have written a complete text, but I am still working from an outline in my memory.
Sunday afternoon has gained a new task. I still post the sermon text to the church’s website along with a video of the worship service. Side by side with that I post the prepared story text to Ordained Geek, accompanied by video of how the story was actually told in worship.
And that’s why stories have returned to Ordained Geek.
Photo by Eric Anderson.