Workshop on Telling a Story that Matters

Amy Butler workshop at PTS

There are several things to know about Rev. Amy Butler before the content of her workshop. First, she’s a UCC pastor in Hawai’i, who also runs a non-profit called Invested Faith, through which congregations and other institutions can “send their witness forward” when they close or even invest while they are thriving, by seeding faith-based initiatives and leaders of faith in action.  

Second, her son Hayden recently told her that she lied to him by making adulthood look easy when he was growing up. He’d been having conversations with his girlfriend about how much he loves his work, but also how it competes with time for their relationship. They’ve had the conversation many times, and he’s finally figuring out the right words to make a difference in how they feel about it, words that matter. 

Third, Butler does not appreciate Hallmark Christmas movies.

Preachers are purveyors of words, but unless those words can move us from a stuck place to a place of justice and compelling truth, what is the point? 

We have to find the narrative thread to hone this craft, to tell a story that makes a difference. 

Dear friends whom Amy respects and with whom she has much in common, consume Hallmark Christmas movies as part of their cozy winter living. Amy uncomfortably noticed while visiting them around Thanksgiving, that every single one of those movies has a predictable plot, and a tidy happy ending. Workshop participants laughed our way through the telling of a made-up Hallmark Christmas movie plot, centered on a career woman returning to her small hometown, of course stirring up conflict between small town values and her career and ambitions. 

We like stories with predictable plots, like those movies. There’s comfort in the predictability of stories that follow Freytag’s pyramid pattern many of us learn in English class: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. But telling a story in this way—especially God’s story—is a stark contrast to crafting a delivery of words that inspire people to change something inside themselves and something out in the world.  

We are living in a time when these are not the kinds of stories that preachers with integrity should be telling. Why can’t we tell the easy stories anymore? We do not live in a world with any easy or simple endings. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. 

We are now players in a story that is unfolding while we preach. Our faith has given us both the challenge and the words we need to take our lives and use them to bring the story of our shared humanity to a beautiful conclusion. But we’re somewhere in the middle of the story. We do not know the end of the story. We must tell the truth and push our people to take risks and act to change the world. We are living in moments when we cannot afford NOT to tell the truth. 

The plot is not simple, not predictable, not finished. We can never give ourselves permission to rest with ease in the knowledge that we are shackled by the inability to change the outcome of the story. The outcome is not fixed. We must tell the truth every day about the choices that lead us to life or death. We have to compellingly tell our people that they have the power to write the end of the story. We must tell the real hard truths about being human and having our hearts broken, and about dying. That there is no more “Leave It to Beaver” version of the church, makes the preacher’s work even more critical. 

The true faith stories we tell can move us toward collective hope, for what’s ahead.

There are no predictable happy endings. Don’t surrender your craft as a preacher to something cheap and formulaic. Grab a thread that will pull you along to a better ending and welcome a hopeful future you cannot yet see. Tell the truth without flinching. 

The thread we pull will either lead people to the same predictable ending … or we will change the world. 

The workshop broke into groups to discuss one story/profile each of the Invested Faith Fellows, then to name where we recognize the Gospel in these initiatives for justice and radical hope. 

Photo by Keith Andrew Spencer, Festival Photographer.