success stories

Posted January 16, 2004

Stories To Tell The Story

Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas
Article from the Bridge
University of Saint Mary of the Lake — Mundelein Seminary
Fall, 2003

I love to preach. Any priests do. I pray that the people find some spiritual message, which is important for their week, in what I say in reflecting on the Scriptures. Sometimes, people find meanings which I never intended or anticipated. The Spirit works wonders!

For several years, I had the joy of training seminarians to preach. These students were eager to learn since they knew that every day of their priesthood would be spent preaching. There was no trouble motivating them to participate and to get involved in the class. They learned from hearing each other. I reminded them that after ordination priests rarely get to hear anyone else preach, so I encouraged them to watch and to listen to one another in order to enhance their own preaching. Modeling is a powerful tool in developing one’s preaching style.

The seminarians brought with them to class memories from years of listening to homilies. The first day of the quarter we discussed their experience of listening to preachers, and they remembered the best and the worst. Oftentimes what they recalled as the best and which they could remember, even years later, were those in which the preacher used stories to focus the Scriptures in a striking way. Yet stories alone, unconnected to the Scriptures, performed rather than proclaimed, were also characteristic of the worst homilies. Narrative preaching, which incorporates stories, while important, is never sufficient for effective preaching. Clearly the Spirit plays a part. And the story needs to serve the Scriptures and not vice versa.

The focus of the course was to frame the message, preached on the readings, with images and stories not unlike what the great Preacher, Jesus Christ, did so often with the parable and stories.

Storytelling is an art that goes back to the earliest of days. The Scriptures themselves were oral tradition before being recorded. Today, one can get a degree in storytelling. Courses and seminars abound, and journals on storytelling can be found in most bookstores.

But the course at Mundelein Seminary was not meant to form storytellers, but preachers who can make use of stories, when appropriate, to communicate in the Scriptures, and to break open the Word of God.

Students were encouraged to become “story mongers” who keep a file of personal stories, already constructed stories, news stories and meditations on gospel stories as a source for their homilies. I encouraged them to be alert for the experiences and stories which they encounter in life and ministry, in newspapers, in other reading, which might be useful in preaching. If a story or experience made a powerful impact on them, it might do the same for others.

I encouraged them to be preachers who use a variety of approaches to break open the Scriptures. Some preachers always use stories, others never. Some preachers continually tell the congregation experiences from their family life, others never do that. Some make homilies an exegetical reflection on the Scriptures, some never reflect on the meaning of the Scriptures. Some teach theologically in their homily, others never do. But preaching, like teaching demands a variety of approaches to make an impact. When you think about it, priests preach countless times to the same congregation. Variety helps make that preaching effective.

In the course, the students were given an opportunity to tell an already constructed story. I gave them the choice of ancient and modern stories from a wide range of cultures. Their first challenge was to find one that made sense to them, and then learn the story and tell it without notes.

It has been said that a person can keep about seven items in mind at once. I encouraged students to keep at most a seven-point outline in their heads. Under each item, they could organize the key points of the story so that they did not have to read the story, and it did not sound memorized. It worked. I prodded them to get into the story, to use gestures, to help the congregation visualize what was happening in the story. After initial fears, they became quite good at it.

The second project was to tell a personal experience story. In that exercise, they had to find a story to tell from their past which happened to them. The story had to make a simple proclamation, something that could be learned from this experience. That proclamation could be made either at the start or at the end, or both, and it had to be stated in no more than two sentences. He had to make sure that they were not the hero of their personal story but an observer or learner in the account. They were encouraged to be succinct using only those details that impact on the telling of the story, because sometimes in telling personal stories preachers ramble on and on. The congregation gets lost in the story and never understands its point.

The final project was to take a scripture story and tell that story from the perspective of one of the characters in the story. For example, one told the story of the Last Supper as if he was John sitting at Christ’s side. Another told the story of the young man that Jesus raised from the dead as if he were the young man. One retold Jonah’s story as if he as the whale who swallowed Jonah. The stories were told in the first person. The seminarians were told to meditate on the Scripture passage and to image what the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of that character were as the scene unfolded. The telling of these Scripture stories gave new insight both to the preacher and to the listener. On occasion this can be a powerful way to open up the Scriptures.

Gradually through the course, the seminarians began to grasp the power a story can have in preaching the Scriptures. They came to realize that when a story flows from the Scriptures and refers back to the Scriptures, it is not a distraction but an effective way to teach. Stories are memorable. They speak to the diverse congregations to which we preach, diverse in ages, in culture, and in state of life. Stories can out people’s own experiences by which they can identify with what is being said. Stories stir the feelings of those listening.

In Tucson, I often hear people talk about their priests. Inevitably they speak about their homilies. Many form their opinion about a priest by his preaching. When a priest’s homilies are meaningful, people will want to approach him, seek his pastoral counsel.

People name certain characteristics that define for them what constitutes good preaching and effective preachers. They want to see the preacher live what he says. They want what he says to be relevant to their lives. They want the preacher to help them to live as disciples of Christ and to know the Scriptures. People like to hear an enthusiastic preacher who is passionate about what he says. They like it when the preacher uses stories and images.

Narrative preaching is a vehicle by which those who preach can enhance their preaching. While it is not all that it takes to become a good preacher, it is an important component.