Dialogue and deliberation is a new movement in our country that is having and will have a huge impact on congregational and denominational life.

Take, for example, these two fictional cases:

Case #1
The denomination has asked every local congregation to talk about several controversial resolutions that will be voted on at the national gathering this summer. The pastor really wants to offer Sunday morning forums to share the information with the congregation but is terrified because she feels certain that many members will be too frightened to speak openly about their views on these resolutions or that if she tries to get them to talk it will turn into “an ugly debate” that could leave people feeling wounded and unheard. What’s a pastor to do?

Case #2
A large, traditional congregation has been gradually experiencing a change in demographics. The congregation is growing and many of the new members range in age from 20 to 35. A high percentage of these new members are living in same-sex or opposite-sex partnerships outside of marriage.

One day a gay couple approaches the pastor and requests baptism for their two newly adopted infants. Within the same week a cohabitating opposite-sex couple volunteers at the last minute to fill in as adult chaperones for the junior high ski retreat. In some congregations, this would be no big deal, but not here. The pastor is flooded with calls from parishioners expressing concerns. The governing board feels caught. Some board members don’t have a problem with either of these situations and others are troubled. What’s a congregation to do?

Here’s an actual case that you can read about online.

Case #3
The pastor and lay leaders want to try something different than their usual Lenten fare, something that will deeply engage the congregation. They’ve heard about a method of conversational cafés but they have some skeptical members who are unsure about bringing people together to talk with such “a loose agenda.” See “The World Café Goes to Church” (http://www.theworldcafe.com/stories/church.htm) to read the rest of the story and hear their thoughts on such topics as authentic conversations, deep listening, and shared insights.

There are times in the lives of our congregations when attempting to fix an unsolvable problem, offering another lecture series, or having another meeting is not the most helpful or creative response to normal events which inevitably arise. There are times when people of faith need to engage deeply with one another around subjects that matter in order to harness their collective wisdom and engage in spiritual discernment. In these times, dialogue is the answer.

Dialogue practices are generally simple (sitting in a circle, offering uninterrupted space to each person) but there is a bit of an art in determining which practices work best in different circumstances. Some of the most important things to consider are:

  • What is the purpose of our dialogue?
  • Who will participate?
  • What guidelines and agreements do we need to establish in order for our dialogue to feel safe and comfortable for everyone?
  • What will the physical surroundings (the room) look like and how will it be arranged?
  • What are the questions we are going to ask which will engage everyone who is participating and are framed in a way that invites participants to connect with one another in meaningful ways and help them make deeper connections within themselves? In other words, which questions will open participants up to the work of the Spirit?

Members of one congregation who have been using dialogue techniques to discuss a controversial issue and also to discern their congregational identity and call write:

  • “The participants all enthusiastically said they liked the dialogue groups, really liked listening to each other and thought we should do more.”
  • “People left wanting to do this again soon. They felt enriched and personally closer to other members as friends in Christ.”
  • “Everyone was pleased with their participation—dialogue is easier than discussion! They all felt comfortable.”


Featured Resources

AL230_SMDifficult Conversations: Taking Risks, Acting with Integrity by Katie Day

“We don’t talk about controversial issues here!” That seems to be the unspoken rule in most faith communities. In this book, author Katie Day invites us to begin engaging in difficult conversations, a process she hopes will become

AL278_SM Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change by Mark Lau Branson

Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to the lives of congregations. Concentrating on needs and problems can mire a congregation in discouragement, but by focusing on memories of the congregation at its best, Appreciative Inquiry allows members to construct “provocative proposals” that help shape their future.