By The Rev. Christopher Girardeau
At the 2022 South Carolina Synod Assembly, Deacon Mitzie Schafer was our keynote speaker. Deacon Mitzie was the perfect follow-up to the stories of Pastor Mary Canniff-Kuhn. At every session, Pastor Mary stood in front of a diverse group of folx and captivate every single one of us with a story that demonstrated God’s love and grace. Then Deacon Mitzie shared why stories—stories that we all have—are so powerful when we share them, as individuals and as congregations.
Deacon Mitzie framed her entire work with us through economic language—“deposits” and “withdrawals”. She reminded us what Pastor Mary taught years ago during Lutheridge staff orientation—treat people like debit cards, not a credit card—that is, you can only make withdrawals when there have been an adequate amount of deposits made. However, as Deacon Mitzie pointed out, many churches primarily (if not almost solely) rely on withdrawals; in fact, 80% of all church communication is withdrawal-oriented—worrying about numbers, focused on scarcity, etc. So much withdrawal language creates a downward spiral. As Deacon Mitzie said, “withdrawals are always noisier than deposits” and churches that rely primarily on withdrawals tend to come from a place of lost relevance.
And so, that raises the question: how do we make deposits? Through story; through sharing our story within God’s story. Churches are not-for-profit organisations. They need donated time, talent, and treasure to operate. But if all churches do is inform and ask (both withdrawals, by the way), relationships have been made purely transactional. The church needs to make relationships inspirational through stories. It is paramount to reconnect with and share what God is up to in, with, and through your congregation. This all leads to what Deacon Mitzie has coined as “CAGA” (pronounced: saga) storytelling.
CAGA (Change, Agent of Change, Gift, Ask) storytelling’s most potent facet is that it connects the donor directly to the change they’re helping through storytelling. At CAGA’s core is the building of relationships—relationships with each other and relationship with God. There are already an abundance of stories and an abundance of grace in our congregations right now. If we start to worry about numbers (“where are they?”, “will they ever come back?”), we are stuck in that withdrawal spiral. Instead, it is much healthier to realise all the folx that have come back; they have stories to tell.
And so, it’s the job of the church to create sacred space for those stories. As Deacon Mitzie emphasized, don’t bury the stories! The reason for this is twofold; first, stories are the vehicles through which relationships are built, and second, it’s a much more effective way to communicate with internal and external audiences. Part of shifting to a storytelling way of communication is pruning, which can be particularly difficult for congregations to do.
You’ve heard the trope: “…but we’ve always done it this way”. Churches that continue to try and do things the way they’ve been done in the past—even if they’re not producing good fruit—do so in an effort to recreate meaningful times in their lives. However, if congregations are not doing things that make an impact, it’s time to prune, as difficult as that may be. Churches should ask themselves: is what we’re doing for maintenance or to help people grow? Deacon Mitzie specifically helped us to focus on our communication—emails, bulletins, social media, and websites. Again, don’t bury the stories.
People tend to get lost in a sea of information. So when visiting a church’s website, a seeker is most likely never going to connect with a congregation because of their résumé. In fact, a website only has about seven seconds to connect with the seeker; that’s it. They’re there not there to see the budget or what programing is available; they want to know if they can belong in this community of faith. They want to see if they’ll be accepted and if the church is making a difference; this is done through storytelling, relationship-building. Telling stories should be the driving force for all your communications.
More information about withdrawals and deposits, CAGA, and storytelling can be found at Deacon Mitzi Schafer’s website: https://www.mitzieschafer.com/assembly.
Our Stories Book
Our Stories Book