Sharing the legacy of our faith through stories

January 18, 2023 by Ellie Johns-Kelley

As Lent swiftly approaches, what practices might you encourage folks to consider over the 40-day journey?

When serving in congregational ministry, I encouraged folks to adopt a practice for nurturing their relationship with God rather than giving something up. For families, I shared the PC(USA)’s Belonging to God: A First Catechism and recommended they read a question and answer with their children every day with the exception of Sunday when they would read four questions and answers. In the aggregate, they would cover all 60 questions over the 40 days and five mini-Easter’s.

During the past month, the deaths of three ministers whom I respected greatly have prompted me to reconsider my recommendation and come up with a new practice that revolves around the importance of storytelling. Rev. Donald H. Gordon and Rev. Harry H. Johns, III, both members of the Presbytery of Lake Erie and the Rev. David Rich a member of Carlisle Presbytery blessed many with their stories of life and faith along with equipping others in sharing such.

Mentors and storytellers

Don Gordon had many stories of life and ministry. Ordained in 1957, his early ministry was marked by his work in the civil rights movement including marching with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma. Don served as the chief of staff for the honorable Carl Stokes, the first African American mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. He provided leadership as Associate Executive for the Presbytery of Lake Erie and served urban and rural churches along the way. Having first met him as a child, I reconnected with him as a colleague in ministry years later listening to his stories of mentors from which he drew inspiration.

David Rich was a mentor, advocate and extraordinary listener. He served as pastor, campus minister and later a Board of Pensions Representative and Theological Education Fund Area Coordinator. At David Rich’s funeral, Diane Stephens Hogue recalled the sound of uproarious laughter in the next room at a restaurant in San Antonio while at a Theological Education Fund Network meeting. She discovered it was David and two other colleagues having a marvelous time. According to Diane, “they were telling stories of life, ministry, travel, family and friends.” The experience sparked a theme for the following year’s gathering of the TEF network – Telling Our Stories. Diane talked about the power of story telling and the instrumental role it plays in “healing, hope, transformation and belonging” and then launched into a beautiful tribute for our friend. (You can read Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty’s tribute to him here.)

My father’s story

On December 30, my dad, Harry Johns, was insistent that I download his Storyworth project to my computer before heading home. For the last year, he wrote weekly articles to put in a book prompted by questions from Storyworth which my brother had gifted him the Christmas before. I knew that my dad would be buying me a copy so I perceived no urgency to place it on my own computer. I am sure glad that I saved the file as a pdf and emailed it to myself as my dad stood by my side, for he died in his sleep in the wee hours of the next morning. This final gift was so useful as I wrote his eulogy and it will stay with me.

The impact of these men’s capacity for storytelling gave me an idea for another practice to recommend during Lent. Perhaps, you might take it on yourself or suggest to others to tell one of their stories per week over the 40 days. Consider what stories of life and faith you want your family and friends to carry with them. Whether you enjoy writing or would prefer recording your stories aloud, take the time document them.

Ask good questions

The following are a few examples of questions that can serve as a catalyst of sharing stories of life and faith:

  • Credo comes from the Latin word meaning “I believe”. What do you believe and why?
  • Were your parents or grandparents active in the church? How did that shape you?
  • Who had the greatest impact on shaping your faith? Was this in childhood, youth or adulthood?
  • Have you always believed in God or was there a defining moment in your life that you claimed living into the love of God?
  • Do you have favorite scriptures or songs? What are they and how do they inspire you?

You may find better questions to answer or offer in this practice. Either way, claim the opportunity to collect and share stories as part of your legacy. Relish in the joy they bring, how they cultivate relationships, and provide healing along the way.

Rev. Ellie Johns-Kelley serves as the Ministry Relations Officer for the Allegheny and Chesapeake Region. She works with congregations to create a culture of generosity, offers seminars and workshops, develops gifts and fundraising plans for ministries, and provides coaching to finance, stewardship and endowment committees. You can reach Ellie at