Convention season is underway for pastors everywhere, especially those of my Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod tribe. It is a chance to weigh in on vital (and not so vital) church business, to hear stimulating speakers, to connect with friends and peers, and to enjoy (courtesy of the congregational savings-and-loan outfit) the free beer tent… especially to enjoy the free beer tent.

Speaking of free stuff, after the beer tent, the next most appealing portable shelter is the one often known as the “ministry tent.” It is the exhibit for various and sundry ministries and ministry-related products. Folks meander through, pretending to be interested in your mission to ‘Blind Plumbers of the Northwest,’ but are, in fact, just scoping out the freebies. Who could not use another stylus or (better yet) miniature Twix? Yes, by all means tell me about your new Bible cover which doubles as a cooler.

In the ministry tent this year, though, I made a discovery more valuable to preachers than a mini candy bar. I am walking through, giving my perfunctory nods and smiles, when this guy holding down one of the tables grabs my attention with a dad joke (he definitely knew his audience) and offers me a Jolly Rancher. I give a polite chuckle, nab the candy, and prepare to proceed on my way.

But then he says to me, “Hey, do you have just a minute?” Sure, I admit, recognizing that the second pass by the table with Butterfingers would probably be too conspicuous anyhow. He asks, “Can I tell you a story that shows why this ministry is so life-changing?” He goes on to tell me this moving anecdote of how, through the work of his organization, a young man with disabilities became an icon of the Gospel. It was even better than the dad joke.

“Can I tell you a story?” is a question most anyone will answer in the affirmative, and preachers even more so.

Suddenly it dawns on me: This whole tent is filled with people like this, ready and eager to tell stories like this. “Can I tell you a story?” is a question most anyone will answer in the affirmative, and preachers even more so. We are collectors of stories; shoot, we are gluttons for stories. Preachers gobble up stories the way my dog gobbles up crumbs from the table. Here in the ministry tent are dozens of folks, just dying for the chance to tell their tale. And not just any stories, mind you, but those which recount how they have seen the Lord at work in powerful and poignant ways. In other words, precisely the sort of stories for which preachers are always on the lookout.

I do not mean to sound like a mercenary here. These ministries are invariably doing good work that deserves our hearing, our prayers, and our support. Moreover, listening to the stories from the dedicated staff and volunteers who man those tables is personally edifying for your faith: Look at what God is up to! So, I do not mean to suggest you ought to storm the exhibitors in order to pillage them for sermon material.

I do encourage you, though, to make a more intentional visit to the ministry tent. Do not merely pass through without a second thought to the ways God has been at work through these organizations that are taking the time to be present. Be proactive and ask, “Can you tell me a story of how your ministry has made an impact?” I doubt you will be disappointed.

My moment with the Jolly Rancher guy gave me a new perspective on an old institution. For preachers like myself, the conference ministry tent is typically regarded as a spot to make connections, kill time, or scrounge empty calories - all of which have their place. What I found out, though, is how the ministry tent is, in fact, an unexpected gold mine for Gospel proclamation. Come to think of it, that might even beat free beer.