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Popular author and speaker Mark Yaconelli calls forth compelling testimonies from attendees at the 2024 APCE Annual Event

A pre-event held Tuesday and Wednesday speaks to the power of transformational storytelling

by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Communications | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Beth and Rob Mueller lead music during an APCE pre-event. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

ST. LOUIS — A spirit of playfulness — which found Christian educators romping around the room in a spirited game of Duck, Duck, Goose despite the early hour — filled the room at one of several pre-events being offered at the Association of Partners in Christian Education (APCE) 2024 Annual Event, “Come, all who are thirsty.”

APCE is an association made up of those who are serving or have served in educational ministries, as ministers, professional or volunteer educators, or students in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, The Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Moravian Church in America, and the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Its purpose is “to advance educational ministries in the Church and increase the ongoing witness of our faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The two-day pre-event sponsored by the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Presbyterian Youth and Triennium was titled, “See, Share, and Stretch Through Stories and Storytelling: Storytelling and Story-Catching as Spiritual Practice and Leader Development.” Its leaders intentionally engaged participants with one another through community building with Beth Bannerman Gunn, gentle worship offered by Beth and Rob Mueller, and interactive presentations, moving illustrations and practical exercises led by the event’s keynoter, Mark Yaconelli.

Keynoter Mark Yaconelli speaks during an APCE pre-event. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

“Christianity is the practice of relationship, and story is relationship,” Yaconelli told some 30 pastors, educators and church volunteers as he introduced the Wednesday morning session.

“A deep friend is someone who knows your story and carries your story,” he said. “We’re looking for that relational power as a way of strengthening our ministries.”

Yaconelli is a sought-after speaker, facilitator and author of six books, the most recent of which is “Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us.” He is also the founder and executive director of The Hearth, a nonprofit whose mission of transformational storytelling “trusts in the power of personal stories to heal, connect, enrich, and mobilize communities for good.”

The Rev. Dr. William Stanley, pastor of Lake Arrowhead Community Presbyterian Church in Southern California, said that he has always been interested in storytelling and has attended different workshops through the years.

“As a preacher, I often wonder what story I would tell right now in a sermon,” said Stanley. “I was especially looking forward to today’s session on how to use storytelling in the ministry context. Some of what Mark Yaconelli teaches about storytelling, healing, and the philosophy behind it really stuck with me. I’ve also been struck by the role of listening in storytelling.”

Yaconelli said that “every person is longing for a good question and a listening ear.”

“The three Bs for listening are to breathe, to bracket, and to behold [the person in front of you],” he said as he led participants in practicing their listening skills.

From left, the Rev. Dr. Susan Sharp Campbell, a former president of APCE; Adrienne Knight; and the Rev. Dr. William Stanley attend the APCE pre-event. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

Pre-event attendee Adrienne Knight, who said she “does a little bit of everything” as a volunteer at Knox Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, especially media and worship leadership, said that she came to the APCE Annual Event primarily to network with and facilitate conversation among other church volunteers.

“I came to this pre-event because I like storytelling, even though I’m an introvert,” Knight said.

Yaconelli maintains that storytelling as a spiritual discipline can greatly benefit congregations.

“There are things we know that are desperately needed and we keep it hoarded in the church,” he said. “Storytelling is one way that we can release those gifts into the community. Stories are a natural, empathic, compassion-building practice.”

Wednesday’s program began with a welcome and greetings from Dr. Christy Williams, organizational administrator of the Presbyterian Youth Workers’ Association (PYWA), a ministry partner with the PC(USA) through the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s offices of Christian Formation and Presbyterian Youth & Triennium and one of five ministry partners in the Christian Formation Collective. In addition to the PYWA and APCE, the others are the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association (PCCCA), UKirk Collegiate Ministries and Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network (POAMN).

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